TruLifeI really, really want Google Glass. Actually, I really, really want Google Glass contact lenses. I also really, really want an Oculus Rift. I want both (or either) because I think it’s cool, but also because I think the concept behind them will become more and more a part of our everyday world. At bloomfield knoble, part of my job is to identify trends and then develop strategies to maximize those trends on behalf of clients. I don’t always get it right, but it keeps us aware and able to respond to clients. So, while in it’s infancy for sure, augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) is becoming more accepted and will very soon change the way consumers interact with products.

Some stores have already introduced AR to people shopping for clothes – try on the dress, now see what it would look like with this piece of jewelry or those pair of shoes or in a different color – all with just a touch. If you’ve had a chance to check out the new Amazon phone, I guarantee you that the next step in Amazon Fire will be using VR through their phone to help the shopping experience. Anyway, as the team here at bloomfield knoble will tell you, I am as fascinated with the “how” behind the technology as much as I am they “why” of the technology. So I was quite excited to read an article by Tushna Commissariat writing for physicsworld.com about a new optical gadget that uses holographic technology to transform wearable, augmented-reality displays.

According to Commissariat, engineers in the UK have developed a device that could be incorporated into a variety of existing technologies and allows users to overlay full-color, 3D, high-definition images onto their normal line of sight, so that it interacts with their surroundings, setting it apart from similar augmented-reality (AR) technologies such as Google Glass and virtual-reality devices such as Oculus Rift.

In recent years, immersive augmented-reality or virtual-reality mobile or computer displays have become more commonplace. From greeting cards that play videos when scanned by a mobile phone to futuristic windshield displays in luxury cars, the line between digital and analogue visual information is being blurred by new technologies. But developing AR displays that seamlessly integrate digital information into the everyday environment can be a challenge. Particularly difficult is overlaying high-quality colour images that are still transparent enough not to obscure the field of vision.

Now, developers at a UK-based company, TruLife Optics, together with researchers from the adaptive-optics group at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) near London, have overcome this overlay problem. They have created an optical component that consists of a waveguide (a rectangle of high-quality glass or plastic that acts as the lens) that contains two postage-stamp-sized holograms overlaid onto it. TruLife Optics is a spin-off from Colour Holographic – a company with expertise in producing holograms.

Earlier this month, TruLife Optics launched its glass waveguide/hologram systems, which can be bought by AR device developers for about £360. The devices are not standalone products and must be incorporated into an eyewear frame, along with a microdisplay, which provides the input image.

The waveguide itself is about 10 cm long, 3 cm wide and 2.8 mm thick, including the two holograms. The holograms provide a convenient way of routing light in a controllable manner. In the team’s device, incoming images from a microdisplay are routed into the first hologram, where the light is turned 90° through the length of the waveguide, via total internal reflection. Then the light hits the second hologram, where it is turned a further 90° so it is projected into the human eye. This means that the overlaid transparent images are projected from the centre of the device into the eye and are perfectly focused.

Using holograms also means a component can be created that is, at most, 2.8 mm thick, making it easy to incorporate into any eyewear. The researchers claim that the image projected “does not lose any fidelity or resolution and is focused to accommodate the eye, thus avoiding the need to squint or move your eye to see the information”. TruLife Optics also plans on making bespoke components that match the requirements of individual developers. The team has a “developer zone” to help buyers and a hackspace, where it encourages customers using its product to discuss possible improvements to the device and contribute towards its evolution.

Simon Hall, a senior researcher at NPL who was key in the development of the component, told physicsworld.com that in the years ahead, the team hopes to produce workable demonstrators for curved waveguides (curved lenses for glasses) and be able to carry out aberration correction to allow the use of prescription lenses. “Adaptive systems allow the image focal plane to follow the accommodation state of eyes. We hope that in five years’ time a number of AR systems available in the market would incorporate our technology,” says Hall. “There are multiple specialist applications of this technology…medical and industrial applications could also be produced.”

Indeed, there could be a range of applications for the device, including entertainment and educational technologies plus displays built into car windscreens and shop windows. Hall also describes more specific applications such as an infrared version that could be developed for firefighters or eyewear worn by doctors during surgery. With the latter, Hall describes a scenario where a colleague in a distant city or country could view and advise on a surgical procedure in real time. The team also envisions that its technology could be useful for experimental scientists and engineers who could overlay a schematic plan on equipment they are working on.