By Chris Chinnock
Adoption of VR has been a rocky road. Early estimates of headset sales fell by the wayside, although they are respectable in the low millions range. The same can be said of the AR market where early consumer enthusiasm is giving way a belief that enterprise applications will lead the way in the short term. But AR headset sales are much less than in the VR market.
Nearly everyone in the AR/VR space wants to sales of hardware and software soar as valuable use cases emerge where people want to use the headset for entertainment or to improve their job performance. Many use cases have been identified,especially in the enterprise space, where AR and VR have demonstrated great potential to improve communication and designs, speed repair, manufacturing or other tasks and improve overall quality. The software platforms continue to evolve but it remains time consuming and costly to configure solutions as all need customization.
On the hardware side, we want to see solutions with more resolution and wider fields of view, with improved processing and sensor capabilities, with better access to data and improved user interfaces and ergonomics. Advances are coming in all these areas, but often an advancement in one area means a trade-off in other areas. What is really needed are simultaneous advances in all areas, which is not quite happening yet. Oh, and all this must happen while also lowering the price of the solution – and significantly to open the consumer market.
So how do we get there? Already there are AR/VR trade associations working to help commercialize the market. But my feeling is that these groups are focused on facilitating communication and developing interoperability platforms, standards and guidelines. These are all important and necessary steps,but we may need more.
By more, I am suggesting that industrial cooperation may be needed to bring together efforts under a common goal to help with coordination of technology, manufacturing and supply chain development. There are so many players developing so many pieces to a complex puzzle that one or more larger industrial cooperatives maybe helpful.
We are already starting to see the seeds of such concepts emerge. For example, Kopin, OLiGHTEK, BOE and Goertek already have a cooperative agreement that is focused on expanding OLED-based microdisplay production and the use of them in headsets. Others may be considering joining as well to bolster the mission.
Kopin is perhaps the number one microdisplay supplier having shipped over 35M devices over the last 30 years and OLiGHTEK is a major OLED panel maker. BOE is the largest Chinese flat panel maker suppling LCD and OLED panels for phones to TVs, while Goertek may be the biggest supplier of VR headsets. Together, they are investing $200M in the AR/VR supply chain. The focus of this investment is a new fab in Kunming, China that will be optimized to make OLED-on-Silicon displays for AR,VR and wearable applications.
For several reasons, the group clearly sees the OLED-on-silicon microdisplays as offering a better solution for these applications than OLED-on-Glass or other alternative display technologies,especially for AR/VR applications.
The new facility is now nearing completion with production expected to begin in Q2’19 with a capacity of 3M microdisplay units a year that can rapidly scale with market demand.
The partners for this fab see this one as phase one of a bigger mission. In phase 2 for example,they want to see other companies with additional component and system level expertise join the effort. This includes companies with expertise in optics, form factors, sensors and more – all to move toward higher performance and more affordable OLED microdisplay solutions for VR, mobile VR, Mobile AR and MR.
For display technology, there will be a push to increase resolution, color fidelity, brightness and speed of response. In optics, reducing the size, cost and brightness are key industry needs. All these potential improvements must be evaluated from a system perspective to align to the market needs for performance and cost of the solution.
Kopin has core strengths in the backplane design and has already launched its 2Kx2K OLED-on Silicon microdisplay, but it is now planning 2.6Kx2.6K and even 3Kx3K versions. Pixel density for the 2.6k display will be in the 2800 ppi range. Fast frame rates of 120 Hz will be supported too, along with HDR and 2:1 or 3:1 Display Stream Compression (DSC).
To get there, Kopin is working with its silicon foundries on the backplane processing and with its OLED partners to develop new OLED materials and deposition processes. It is even considering new sub-pixel designs and OLED architectures. There is a lot to do but production of the 2.6Kx2.6K microdisplay is planned for 2019 and the 3Kx3K for 2020.
The group is also looking very carefully at the data interfaces to support these higher resolution displays. The solution may change based upon the configuration – i.e. tethered or mobile.
Cooperation on developing next generation displays can be a helpful solution to speeding development and lowering costs. Expanding the cooperation to system level platforms could do the same thing allowing more standardization in hardware design and interoperability. This in turn, should help reduce application development costs allowing end users to adopt AR/VR solutions sooner and at lower cost. That’s the theory, anyway. Let’s see how this cooperative and maybe other efforts play put in the next few years.