Facebook has announced the next step in pushing forward the company's plan of working on building the augmented reality (AR) glasses that could one day replace our smartphones.
The social media giant is teaming up with UK-based manufacturer Plessey, one of the only companies that designs and commercializes microLED displays – a technology that combines high definition and small formats, and is therefore particularly fitting for AR headsets.
Rather than an acquisition, the arrangement is a multi-year partnership, by which Plessey will dedicate its LED manufacturing operations to helping Facebook develop microLED wafers for future AR and VR products. The manufacturer will also grant Facebook exclusive licence to some of its intellectual property.
In Plymouth, England, Plessey designs and produces microLED products, which are emerging as the next generation of high-definition displays, albeit not at a mass production scale just yet. As their name suggests, microLEDs use very small LEDs for pixels, and combine red, green and blue sub-pixels to reproduce a color.
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The displays enable high contrast, high speed and a wide viewing angle; but the real added value of the technology is extra brightness – a characteristic that microLED's sister technology OLED is known to lack. According to Plessey, where OLED delivers 1,000 nits, microLEDs can deliver hundreds of thousands of nits for the equivalent power consumption. All in a display that is even more compact.
MicroLED, therefore, ticks many key boxes, but adoption across the electronics industry is still low – not because the technology isn't ready, but because manufacturing the display poses significant hurdles. A challenge that Plessey maintains that it has successfully overcome, by developing a unique design for the display, in which gallium nitride (GaN) LEDs are fitted onto silicon transistors.
The manufacturer's "GaN-on-silicon" technology, says Plessey, is the "only technology platform capable of addressing all the challenges involved with manufacturing microLED displays in high volumes cost-effectively."
Further down the line, and if deployed successfully, microLED displays could hugely improve AR headsets. The technology, in principle, will let users kiss bulky headsets goodbye, and instead use gear akin to a pair of glasses, with higher pixel density and more brightness, as well as much lower power consumption rates. Plessey predicts that users, instead of charging their device every other day, could only have to charge it every month.
For Facebook, which has vouched to make AR glasses a reality for a number of years now, the technology could therefore be a game-changer. "With a future AR glasses product, we envision a glasses form factor that lets devices melt away," said the social media platform as it announced the new partnership.
"This will take years, so across AR/VR we're continuing to invest in extensive research on this deep tech stack and components such as small-scale displays."
The tech giant started pitching the idea three years ago, with the prospect that users would eventually be able to put AR glasses on to carry out tasks similar to those performed by smartphones. Although Facebook's executives warned at the time that the technology wouldn't be ready before 2022, the vision has since then remained roughly the same: to have "all-day wearable AR glasses that are spatially aware."
At the latest Oculus Connect developer conference, the company teased that its AR/VR department now has a few prototypes of AR glasses, but did not provide further details.
Plessey, for its part, said that Facebook's consumer devices like Oculus Quest already make the company one of the best-positioned to make consumer-ready AR glasses a reality.
The manufacturing company's CEO Keith Strickland said: "This agreement recognizes the significant advances in our capabilities that we have made in recent years and we very much look forward to working with Facebook to help bring their vision to life."
Facebook is not the only tech giant keeping a close watch on the microLED scene. MicroLED displays are not only an opportunity for AR and VR headsets, but also for HDTVs, smartphones and wearables. Research consultancy Yole Developpement, in fact, forecasts that the microLED market could reach up to 330 million units by 2025.
At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Samsung unveiled a crowd-pleasing wall-sized TV using microLED technology, suggesting that appetite for the product is already growing. Apple was also recently reported to be working on its own in-house microLED displays for use in mobile devices. The Cupertino giant, however, was said to have almost pulled out of development due to the difficulty of manufacturing the displays.