Avegant's Virtual Retinal Display prototype takes Oculus Rift-style immersion to the next level
Avegant's product actually projects two discrete images directly onto the retinas of the wearer -- as is not-so-subtly implied by the name.
Somewhere within the tangled mass, hurriedly yet skillfully wiring this contraption together, is Ed Tang, CEO of a company called Avegant. Avegant has produced this device, a wearable prototype he simply calls the Virtual Retinal Display for now. It could be most closely compared to the Oculus Rift, a full-field wearable display that presents a 3D image to the wearer. However, where the Rift cunningly relies on a single LCD panel and some simple optics to work its magic, Avegant's product actually projects two discrete images directly onto the retinas of the wearer -- as is not-so-subtly implied by the name.
Everything connected, Tang hands over the device and helps get it adjusted. Retinal projection requires precise alignment and optical focusing, a major engineering challenge that has pushed other companies toward simpler technologies when creating wearable displays. (Including Google, which considered retinal projection for Glass.) Avegant seems to have solved that problem in two ways: a frame that expands to accommodate different face widths and high-quality optical elements that can be individually adjusted. Where most wearable displays have crude, fixed optics, Avegant's eyepieces wouldn't look out of place at an ophthalmologist's.
Once properly aligned, the resulting image is compelling. The device offers a separate WXGA (1,280x768-pixel resolution) image for each eye, basically twice the effective resolution of current Oculus Rift developer kits. This means a crisp, clear image and, because of the nature of the projection's micromirror array, there's no screen door effect. Pixels seem to blend together seamlessly, creating an incredibly bright and vibrant image.
With Avegant's prototype there simply is no display. Your eyes completely relax and let the optics do the work of focusing.
Most impressive, however, is how comfortable the device is to wear. Not physically -- it's heavy, and all that weight rests squarely on your nose -- but rather in terms of eye comfort. Traditional wearable displays use optical tricks to provide some degree of eye relief, but you're still trying to focus on a display that's fairly close to your eyes. With Avegant's prototype there simply is no display. Your eyes completely relax and let the optics do the work of focusing. After staring at an LCD for hours, it's actually refreshing to gaze into this prototype.
This was one of the core concepts of the device, which grew out of a military request years ago to create a display that provided thermal imaging in a wearable package like traditional night vision goggles. Allan Evans, Avegant co-founder and CTO, fielded that request. "I was looking around and one day I realized that we don't stare at things that glow, we stare at light. So I started looking at how light actually is perceived, and I connected with an optics researcher and we started building giant boxes to prove the concept. It ended up working and we tried to miniaturize it."