How about your optical technologies for AR and VR? Do you think the company has been fully recognized for its contributions here?
Yes, this is an important, but often underestimated, part of the headset equation. The design of one will directly affect the design of the other if you want to get the best results, so display and optics have to be designed together. You can have a great microdisplay, but you still need to magnify the image to the user in order to provide a satisfying experience. Furthermore, our customers who are building headset systems are looking for a complete solution including optics: the whole display module. This applies to both AR and VR.
For example, you saw the Panasonic VR device press release where it notes that we worked closely with 3M on our Pancake optics that are matched to our 2.6K X 2.6K ColorMax DoC for this new VR headset.
Actually, this level of integration is something we learned from our vast military experience where we ship the entire hermetically sealed module to our customers: display, optics, electronics, and housing. We also believe this model creates very strong long-term supply relationships with our customers.
HAVE WE ENTERED
THE AGE OF THE
OLED provides you much better contrast and an improvement in overall image quality for certain situations. We know that enterprise users and consumers want lighter headsets with higher resolution, faster screen speeds, and improved image fidelity. Also, power consumption and reliability of the display are important factors in the device design. So, now we ask ourselves how we can accomplish all of this as we shrink the display?
First, we think that an OLED microdisplay needs to be on a silicon substrate, not glass. Second, we integrate more and more of the interface circuitry for the display into this silicon backplane. It is important to note the backplane circuitry is not just driving the OLED, we actually put the entire display driver IC (DDIC) on the backplane. In fact, we now refer to this architecture as a Display on Chip (DoC). We think we may be the first ones to go to market with this DoC approach.
By providing this complete DoC to our customers, we bring a total MicroOLED solution to them. This is particularly important in the early periods of a device demand ramp when individual customers could find it difficult to do their own DDIC design due to low initial volumes.
As you know, we have built a lot of backplane design expertise within Kopin, including the acquisition of eMDT out of California a number of years ago to focus on MicroOLED. When you consider our history with AMLCD, vast military experience, and OLED backplane expertise from eMDT, we feel our microdisplay team is amongst the best in the world. Also, with our recent announcement of a 2.6K X 2.6K Duo-Stack MicroOLED display we think we are ahead of everyone else.
Let me speak to the importance of ColorMax here which is an additional point of difference for our approach and it is embedded in the backplane. With OLED you are constantly working to improve your display to be brighter and have a longer life. For this you need to go dual junction or even triple junction. The challenge is when you take this approach the color falls off as the pixels mix and your image quality suffers. We believe others have tried dual junction MicroOLED and failed forcing them to revert back to single junction, which of course has its issues with brightness vs. lifetime performance.
Our approach was that we would not accept single junction MicroOLED and set out to solve the color fidelity challenge in dual and triple junction OLED structures. We were not constrained by an immediate commercial need to produce displays. We were able to focus on designing and building something that would leapfrog single junction OLED. I am proud to say we did it!
With the Kopin ColorMax Duo-Stack DoC architecture, we feel MicroOLED now delivers on all the key criteria device makers want: color, contrast, speed, brightness, power efficiency, and longevity.
We are not exclusive to anybody and we can supply any company that needs access to our unique ColorMax and DoC architecture.
Without commenting directly on any rumored devices to come from Apple or others, I do feel that its time has come. Certainly we feel that MicroOLED will be in focus this decade.
Notably, the COVID pandemic has changed consumer behaviours in a big way. Consumers still want to watch sports and attend concerts or live events and so on, but they can’t easily go to a stadium or arena anymore. They now must consume this content at home. In fact, in some ways watching this content at home could be better with recent advances in cameras and so on. So, I think many companies see this as an opportunity for headsets. I do believe for VR, it would be a headset-type configuration first before emerging as an eyeglass-like configuration. Needless to say, current R&D focus in the industry, especially our focus, is to make these VR headsets smaller and lighter weight, like regular eyeglasses.
Looking across the entire XR spectrum, I still believe true AR headsets for the average consumer will take some time to see broad adoption. I have spoken about this frequently including most recently at ARIA in 2020. The concept of AR as many have seen in Hollywood films will take some time to develop and for consumers to accept. It’s important to remember that AR headsets, not like regular eyeglasses, are currently in use for professionals that are trained (pilots, doctors, soldiers, etc.) and they are deployed for very specific single functions and then taken off. My feeling is that it will take some time for consumers to use and find utility from all-day AR smart glasses.
I think, again back to Clayton Christensen’s theory of Disruptive Innovation, you need to approach the handheld to hands-free transformation in steps. Adding one function at a time and building up the experience that the user actually values.
For VR headsets, the industry needs to find the right level of immersion. Right now, VR headset usage for extended periods of time has not been well accepted by consumers. If you think back to Fan’s Five Laws for AR/VR, law number one is: Humans First. If you think about current human behaviour, in what situation today do you consume content for any extended time, in complete darkness with no situational awareness? Even in a movie theatre there is some form of lighting or else you will become disoriented.
We think the next generation of 5G XR Viewers like Panasonic’s new device can be used to comfortably consume streamed content for 3 or 4 hours due to a balance of high image fidelity, low latency, and a slim lightweight form factor. In fact, I think the new Panasonic VR headset may be the gold standard today for this type of device.
- A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH WEARABLES PIONEER, DR. JOHN C.C. FAN
How about the ongoing debate of Optical See-Through AR versus Video See-Through AR? Which path will enterprise and consumer devices take and is it limited by technology? Or again, are we back to what humans will accept and use?
While the industry does continue to pursue Optical See-Through AR using different optical and display technologies, I feel Video See-Through AR has a lot of potential near term. As another point of reference, all the AR experiences (and the software apps), in Apple iPhones or Android phones are all using Video See-Through with excellent smart phone cameras. Also with Video See-Through, it will be much easier to switch between AR and VR.
Another variant of Video See-Through AR is the Second Screen approach like RealWear’s product which is of course based upon the Golden-i platform Kopin developed over a number of years. With this approach, the AR content is available on-demand when the worker needs it and they can switch back and forth between the digital and analog worlds very easily. The AR content is not blocking their view and they do not need to train their eyes specially to use it. With the Second Screen approach the cognitive loads on humans are much less. The brain does not need to work in the background trying to understand what is real and what is augmented.
Second Screen AR has become a very useful approach for enterprise users, soldiers, first responders, and medical professionals.
Again, I have to stress that voice and audio in many cases can provide a lot of what is required in wearable devices. My feeling is that audio smart glass will be a very large opportunity over the next few years. Remember, I consider this a form of AR and one that can be easily adopted and accepted by consumers.
So I want to stress again to the wearable developers, please keep it simple: Humans First!!! Otherwise consumers may not accept your device.
Thank you for your time Dr. Fan. I look forward to further discussions as the AR, VR and Wearables markets continue to evolve.
FEBRUARY 4, 2021
BY: DERRICK ZIERLER
The emerging Kopin microdisplay story seems to have some parallels to your earlier HBT success which was a result of your unique transistor being chosen for inclusion in the Qualcomm CDMA platform. As we enter a period of heightened activity for AR, VR, and audio smart glass, why haven't investors recognized Kopin’s display business as a potentially significant part of the wearables industry story?
With Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality garnering renewed interest, I thought it would be a good time to sit down with Kopin’s CEO, Dr. John Fan and gather his thoughts on the state of the industry.
Those that follow the AR and VR categories will be all too familiar with the ups and downs of the devices themselves, companies that have persisted or failed, and slower than expected adoption. There are a few pioneers who have been driving AR/VR activity for decades and Dr. Fan is one of them, having delivered some of the first mass-produced AMLCD panels for Military AR in the 1990’s.
This is my third interview with Dr. Fan and I can honestly say each discussion provides me with a better understanding of what is on the horizon and more importantly allows me to calibrate my expectations as an AR/VR industry observer.
Perhaps, it would be appropriate for me to stress at the beginning of this interview that the AR/VR era is still rapidly evolving, and I certainly do not have all the answers. Based on years of experiences and observations, I can offer a candid summary of my views on the topic.
Yes. We have learned a lot on this wearables journey including from my late friend Clayton Christensen and his theory of Disruptive Innovation. A very important point here is that when you have a transformation, in this case the radical transformation of moving from handheld to truly hands-free, don’t try and immediately transition the entire handheld device to hands-free. You need to start with just one function. Now, make a hands-free device that delivers that one function and does that very well. This is so clear to us now and that is why my talk at ARIA focused on voice and audio AR as that first function we will move from handheld devices to head-worn wearables.
On the audio smart glass front, we feel that Solos is a very good first attempt and we will continue to advance this platform. As you know, for audio glasses to be embraced by the consumer, the voice recognition function must perform extremely well -- the Whisper technology Kopin developed over a number of years is the core of Solos smart glasses and is the key to why they perform so well for voice recognition.
We continue to see industry observers discuss the possibility of Apple launching some sort of AR or VR headset in the next 12 to 24 months. What do you make of this buzz and any potential impact on the AR/VR and wearables categories? Will this decade be the “Age Of The Microdisplay?”
Building on that concept of users streaming and consuming live event content, I recall last year that Qualcomm and its partners introduced the 5G XR Viewer category. Also, we’ve seen the new Panasonic VR device shown again at CES 2021 that fits perfectly into this category and I believe it uses Kopin microOLED panels and optics. Near term, does this 5G XR Viewer approach result in broader adoption of VR headsets for consumers?
In your talk at ARIA 2020, you clarified that Audio Glass was really what we're likely going to see as the first wave of smart glasses near term. It seems consumer smart glasses employing visual technologies and microdisplays may take a bit more time?
What about microdisplays themselves? I mean, it’s very exciting to see MicroLED on Kopin’s technology roadmap now with the recent announcement that you are partnering with Jade Bird. It seems you now have three paths to market: full displays marketed as Kopin Lightning for example, custom backplanes for multiple architectures (LCD, OLED, LED), and potentially licensing of three layers of MicroOLED IP? Perhaps even supplying companies I think of as Kopin’s direct competitors right now?
I believe Kopin has an important part to play in the transition from handheld platforms to a completely hands-free mobile computing paradigm. This could be the third wave for our company and we may once again be in the right place, with the right suite of technologies, at the right time.
It turns out the AR/VR momentum we saw about 5 years ago triggered by Google Glass and other devices was a bit early, but we have all learned a lot and unfortunately some pioneers did not make it. However, Kopin has been one of the early pioneers and is clearly a survivor.
Kopin’s key contributions to the coming transition to wearable hands-free mobile computing include:
Our approach is to continue to develop components and experience that we believe our current and future customers will need to deliver their products. If we execute our plan well, we believe the market will recognize our efforts and the valuation of the company will reflect that. There is still a lot of noise in the AR and VR categories but we also know it is the early part of the adoption curve where the technology and the consumer are adjusting to each other. Eventually, we feel the market will reward a select few strong leaders in this space.
It is worth noting that Kopin has an interesting family tree with a number of spin-offs over the years and I am cheering for all of them. I feel very good about our contributions to the industry and believe quite strongly that the Kopin team will be recognized as a significant contributor to the coming transition from handheld platforms to a hands-free mobile computing paradigm.