There are two devices laid out on the wood-panelled coffee table in the Charlotte Street Hotel in west London. On one side sits a pair of goggles with square lenses. On its left is a bracket encasing a handheld projector at one end and a flip-top transparent lens at the other.
They’re proof of concept augmented reality (AR) prototypes designed by WaveOptics, a tech firm based in Oxfordshire. CEO Sumanta Talukdar believes the company has a product and a business model that could transform the industry.
“Real AR hasn't been experienced that much,” says the former optical engineer. “We're going to change that.
“We’ve developed a core technology that we believe is the technology that's been missing for mass adoption to happen."
The technology he refers to is known as 'waveguides'. These ultra-thin transparent substrate sheets of glass or plastic contain nanostructures that use optical physics to manipulate the behaviour of light to form patterns in a display driven by mini projectors.
They allow a large field of view through thin lenses without any need for the bulky engines, drivers or displays common in other methods, such as prisms and mirrors, which can block peripheral vision and add weight to the device.
First generation waveguides
It makes more sense when I can see it. I strap on the goggles, a first generation design connected to a battery pack that streams content from Chromecast out of a mobile phone and into my eyes.
The projection paints an underwater world on the walls in front of me where fish and sharks swim across the room. The head-locked image tracks where I look to keep the overlay static; 'Terminator vision', as it’s sometimes called.
The motion sickness that plagues virtual reality is not a problem with AR as the brain has all the reference points needed for the inner ear to reconcile the view, as you still see straight into the real world around you. The images are also not as graphically complex as in VR, and therefore require far less power.
The lenses sit inside this unit because it was designed for end users on a factory floor who all have to wear safety googles. The battery pack was added to ensure it would run for the full eight-hour working day.
"That's our first gen technology,” says WaveOptics VP Dion Price. "You do a tale-of-the-tape comparison with HoloLens and it comes out on top in most areas. “
He shows me a demo of a forklift truck driver using the display to complete his day’s tasks. It immediately lights up in front of him beside the aisles. The display instructs him through his tasks for the day.
The headset displays information from simple tech such as barcodes, an RFID Tape or a QR code. A forward-facing camera constantly scans the environment in conjunction with a Bluetooth beacon or an RF code that adds information whenever a valid object is seen.
Distribution and logistics are particularly practical applications, as a small saving in efficiency through reduced training time can lead to a massive saving in expenditure. Manufacturing, repairs, surgery and firefighting are other examples of fields ripe for disruption.
The excitement at WaveOptics is justified by the rumblings of tech giants. Apple rarely reveals its plans for the future, but CEO Tim Cook told investors in July that the company is "high on AR in the long run". The plans are unsurprising. Augmented reality will attract roughly three times the revenue of virtual reality by 2020, according to a report released by tech advisor Digi-Capital last January.
Waveguides are becoming an industry standard, but Talukdar believes that WaveOptics has a unique combination of skills in addition to its patented micro-patterned optical designs.
“You need IP, you need people, and you need an understanding of the technology. We've got all of those,” he says.
“There are some companies that have IP because of acquisitions, like Microsoft HoloLens, but they've lost people. There are some people like Oculus, who have the people but they don't have the IP and the background know-how.
“There are very few who have all those three things under one roof like us.”
Another thing they’ve got is decades of history with the technology. While Talukdar’s current focus is on enterprise and commercial applications for AR, his previous job involved designing systems that could make the difference between life and death.
Augmented reality roots
Talukdar spent four years working for defence giant BAE systems. Together with future WaveOptics CTO David Grey, he ran the team that developed head-mounted displays for fighter pilots.
"The kind of stuff that goes into the cockpits of the F16s and the Eurofighters in front of the eyes of the gunners on the planes,” he explains. “You know, Universal Soldier-type stuff.
“In those days it was called head-up displays and HMDs. Fast-forward a couple of decades and today it's called AR and mixed reality.
“The end core precept is still the same: the ability to add real information on top of the real world."
Talukdar was developing the technology for real-world products, but he began to doubt the efficiency of multi-million pound programmes staffed by armies of workers that after months of work would result in just a few prototypes. He was confident there was a more scalable approach.
In 2010, Talukdar and Grey founded WaveOptics. Operations began in 2014 with their first commercial contract. Since then, they’ve attracted funding from Imperial Innovation, Robert Bosch Venture Capital, Octopus Ventures and British AR pioneers Blippar, and are currently closing their latest funding round.
WaveOptics operates on a foundry model, developing and designing the technology for others to manufacture. Headset manufacturers are clients, not competitors.
The waveguides the company provides them with are suitable for mass market use as the materials they’re composed of and tools used to construct them are easily-accessible and affordable, without compromising performance.
Next generation AR
WaveOptics doesn’t construct commercial headsets, but they do provide clients with small quantities of development kits.
The second device waiting on the table is placed in my hand, a third generation prototype built on feedback from the first. Unlike its predecessor, this one is designed for mass volume production in the millions of units.
The simple square frame contains a clear thin lens that is lit up by a Samsung Galaxy Beam Projector. It's a rudimentary device without the waveguide inside.
"That wasn't assembled in a lab,” explains Price. “I just banged it together this morning."
When held in front of the eye, it forms a sharper, more vibrant image that the previous model, due to the greater transmittance of light in the room.
The first headset blocked about 40 percent of the light from the outside world. This one reduces that to about 10 percent, close to the level of a normal household window.
It's a minor difference to my untrained eyes, but the reduction is crucial in other applications. WaveOptics envisions the technology added to motorbike helmets.
The first generation model can produce aberrations on the road, such as a starring rainbow effect in the visor. The new iteration averts that risk, adding value but not distraction.
Ghosts of the future
The latest prototype designed by WaveOptics is a lightweight headset called Ghost. A beam runs atop the head to connect the lenses at the front to a disassembled Android device at the back. A battery powers the system untethered for two hours, but it can be plugged into a mains socket if the user wants more.
"We'll also be supplying one of these to one if the world's largest movie studios," says Talukdar. "We're hugely looking forward to what they can do with it, and then we'll be in a position where the content they produce on it we can actually use for our own purposes."
His comments reflect the company strategy of developing symbiotic relationships with partners who can develop the technology as a platform.
WaveOptics are opening an office in the west coast in January, and Talukdar expects the company to grow across R&D, engineering, commerce and operations. They're betting that mass adoption of AR will come sooner than expected.
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