When virtual reality first appeared on PCs, it was mostly used to create special effects for gaming. There has been huge progress since. What wasn’t clear, though, was how fast the overall technology would evolve and how extended reality would unfold its full potential in both entertainment and business.
If you remember, one of the first hardware devices, Google Glass, was introduced about 10 years ago. It was somewhat limited in what it offered and wasn’t very successful. However, it still got some attention and introduced the initial virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR) hardware to the public.
Google Glass was followed by rapid advances, including full 3-D headsets and immersive sound. VR use was introduced to a variety of professional fields, including medicine, business, technical services, military simulations, and training—basically where lifelike simulations would be of use or of interest.
While so many of us were forced to stay at home during the pandemic, we had to find more immersive ways to communicate and collaborate in the digital world. In the meantime, developers were advancing technology and processes that made our homestays more productive. Government, business, medical, entertainment, and other types of communication allowed for full remote access across the globe. We learned what was possible with XR, so much so that many of us plan to incorporate it into our lives.
Connecting Through AWE
That’s what makes the upcoming Augmented World Expo (AWE) in Santa Clara, California, so exciting. The conference is scheduled from June 1–3, and features XR professionals—end-users and solution providers; investors and startups; creators, developers, and brands; job seekers and recruiters. I’ll be covering the event, which I hear will focus on spatial computing. This includes augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), and extended reality (XR), as well as showing new enabling technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), bio-interfaces (such as haptics), streaming, and more.
Interestingly, I-Connect007 began covering virtual reality during the CES shows in the early years, and we were invited to attend AWE. When it started 10 years ago, it attracted just a few hundred attendees and a handful of interesting exhibits and presentations. This year, I expect to see thousands of attendees and hundreds of exhibitors. With the rapidly increasing rate of advancements in technology and the ever-broadening XR universe, it’s going to be awe-inspiring. (By the way, AWE started lumping all the “reality” categories into one, calling it XR.)
With the XR revolution already underway, it’s easy to envision a future in which the lines between the real world and the virtual world become even more blurred than they are today. New advanced computing, headsets, and haptics will ensure this happens.
Impact on Fab and Assembly
So, what does the true start of the XR (meta) universe mean for electronics fab and assembly? The obvious areas are designing and building lighter, smaller, and more comfortable headsets; there’s even the introduction and use of e-contact lenses.
Figure 2: Companies such as Facebook are now jumping into the metaverse.
I’m noticing a trend toward more wireless, cable-free connections between devices that are needed to bring as many human senses as possible into the XR universe. For example, think about the very first XR, which was black-and-white silent movies. They were low resolution images projected on a screen, but still amazing to experience. For the past 50 years, we have continuously been introduced to new and better images—full color, improving resolution, sight, and sound. Now we are seeing that develop into true 3-D personal visions and two-way communication. We also have touch and control of virtual objects using haptics, which is the science of feeling through touch: manipulating and controlling by using your hands. It’s funny, but even keyboards and mice are considered primitive haptics.
There is a major difference between perceiving objects through haptics and the other four primary senses. Proprioception, for example, includes the sense of movement and position of our muscles in our arms and legs. It enables a person to touch their finger to their ears, nose, and belly button accurately—even with their eyes closed. They can walk and climb without looking at each step. People with poor proprioception abilities may be clumsy and uncoordinated. The other senses (hearing, smelling, tasting, and seeing) can only sense objects, while touch can feel and manipulate.
The way XR incorporates these senses, such as taste and smell, is remarkable and I see that we’re headed for a full XR world with very little perceived difference between real and virtual.
What does this look like beyond gaming? In the medical field, a top surgeon can effectively practice and successfully perform a surgery halfway around the world. When it comes to military or other training, you can learn how to operate and/or repair an unlimited list of devices. For entertainment, there’s sports, concerts, and shopping. For example, log in, put on your XR headset or glasses, look at new furniture, then virtually pace it in your living room. XR lets you confront your fears by experiencing something virtually, so the possibilities are “virtually” limitless.
What Do You Want to Try?
One of the biggest issues facing mainstream adoption of VR headsets has been their form factor. Anyone familiar with this type of tech has the image of a bulky binocular, somewhat uncomfortable headset. So, keep in mind that XR headsets have become much smaller and more comfortable. They incorporate greatly improved optics and audio, are mostly wireless, and are much more affordable.
If you are considering moving into the future of computing/entertainment, here are some new and upcoming examples of hardware.
One of the highest-rated and perhaps best-value VR headsets right now is the Oculus Quest 2. It has an excellent high-resolution display with 50% more pixels than the Quest 1. It includes redesigned touch controllers and is capable of full 360-degree sound, making it fantastic for virtual concerts. It’s easy to set up, but you must have a Facebook account to use it. Meta says it will release four new headsets over the next two years.
Another excellent choice is the HTC Vive Cosmos Elate. This is an excellent device with very high-quality graphics. It’s loaded with features and widely compatible. Biggest negative: It’s not cheap.
Mojo Vision announced this month that is has created a prototype of its Mojo Lens augmented reality contact lens.
The company believes this smart contact lens will bring “invisible computing” to life. At the heart of Mojo Lens is its new 14,000 pixels-per-inch micro-LED display. Measuring less than 0.5 mm in diameter with a pixel-pitch of 1.8 microns, it is the world’s smallest and densest display ever created for dynamic content. To me, it looks like a wireless e-contact lens.
The Mojo Lens started production in 2017 as a single LED product, but now the display contains a wealth of features, including a hi-res micro-LED display, fast wireless data, battery power, eye-tracking, and eye-controlled user experience (UX). Currently, the Mojo Lens remains in the prototype stage, but it is a good example of what’s coming our way.
Addressing the Challenges
One of the core enabling technologies driving XR (among others) is 5G, with 6G on the horizon. As XR experiences become more demanding, they will require more computing and processing power. This stresses the hardware devices as there is a limit to how much a device can handle. This limit is ultimately determined by the physical size of the device components.
As XR experiences increase in complexity, they become more demanding of a device’s resources. As demand of hardware increases, so does the capability of the GPU, which will then also require a larger battery, more on-device memory, as well as better cooling. These challenges as well as others are being addressed by new design and manufacturing processes (such as 3-D printing) and I expect will be solved. VR is certainly an area that will have a significant effect on many areas of life in the coming decade.
Dan Feinberg is an I-Connect007 technical editor and founder of Fein-Line Associates.