Avegant's AR headset won me over with 'light field' and David Bowie

AR Week: Avegant's light field does wonders for our eyes
How Avegant's light field changes AR

VR and AR isn't exactly built for the fashion conscious right now, but this takes the biscuit. Between the bug-eye-looking lenses and the antenna on top, I am half man, half beetle. I am the shit Kamen Rider. But all of this melts away as soon as David Bowie's Space Oddity comes into earshot and the red planet emerges before my eyes, perfectly in focus.

Avegant's AR is impressive because it's so… normal. I can focus on holograms at varying lengths without any eye strain or blur; my eyes focus naturally. "Our eyes are very sensitive to focus within about one meter," Avegant CTO Edward Tang explains, and Avegant's light field technology might be the answer.

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Light field produces multiple focal planes so the eyes can focus on projections at varying distances in the way they would anything physical. It gets around one of the biggest problems in AR and VR right now, called the vergence-accomodation conflict, which causes our eyes to work against their nature. Oculus is busily working on a solution to this too.

The AR/MR world is projected to be this big opportunity. Realistically, it's not really possible unless you have light field

To rewind a little, Avegant has been working on this project's tech for a couple of years new. Its first product, the Avegant Glyph, a headset that projects images onto the retina, is one you can buy today. The technology is a variance of digital light processing (DLP) technology used in cinemas, but Avegant turned around and projected it into the viewer's eye. It took its learnings from the Glyph and brought it to AR.

Back to Bowie. I'm actually standing inside a hologram of the entire solar system, and as I walk around, external cameras placed around the room track my movements. As I walk up to Earth I get a close-up of the International Space Station in orbit. What's impressive is how I can appreciate the detail of every hologram I look at. Even when I try closing one eye, I can still focus naturally on each object. Moments later the solar system is gone and across the room a hologram of a girl is looking at me. Her eyes follow me as I approach her, the first example of how these holograms can be interacted with. It's a little creepy, but I'm impressed. On the floor I spot an Amazon Echo - Tang tells me they're experimenting with some demos using Alexa.

This is light field - thrillingly normal. Right now, Avegant is the only one doing it properly, although Magic Leap is supposedly offering something similar. Avegant has leapfrogged HoloLens, which in its current form won't let you see or interact with holograms up close, for that very reason - it just won't look right.

This is light field - thrillingly normal

Where the improvement still needs to happen is in the quality of the projections themselves. They're impressively detailed, yes, but not quite vivid enough yet. Other things need to get better, as we know, but things like movement tracking, wireless (the Avegant is still tethered) and hand tracking will need to be solved by other people. However Avegant did show me a demo using Leap Motion's hand tracker, which put different animated objects - an elephant, a crocodile, a beating heart, a syringe (ouch) - onto my palm.

Tang is bullish that Avegant's light field is the key to AR's future. He calls it the "minimum barrier" to creating great AR/MR experiences. "The AR/MR world is projected to be this big opportunity, kind of transformative in a lot of different industries. Realistically, it's not really possible unless you have light field."

He says we'll see partners emerging with Avegant's tech by the end of the year, though he obviously cannot tell me who those partners might be. Expect a lot of enterprise and business names, however Tang is most excited right now for ARKit arriving in September with iOS 11, something he calls "the spark the industry needs".

"Today there's almost nobody who knows what AR is in the consumer space... Probably within the next 90 days there's going to be 100 million consumers. That is a crazy jump. It's crazy to think that people like my parents are going to be using AR."


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