Can virtual reality become indistinguishable from actual reality? Swave Photonics, a spinoff of Imec and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, has designed holographic chips on a proprietary diffractive optics technology to “bring the metaverse to life.” The Leuven, Belgium–based startup has raised €7 million in seed funding to accelerate the development of its multi-patented Holographic eXtended Reality (HXR) technology.
“Our vision is to empower people to visualize the impossible, collaborate, and accomplish more,” Théodore Marescaux, CEO and founder of Swave Photonics, told EE Times Europe. “With our HXR technology, we want to make that extended reality practically indistinguishable from the real world.”
What does it mean to project images that are indistinguishable from reality? “It means a very wide field of view, colors, high dynamic range, the ability to move your head around an object and see it from different angles, and the ability to focus,” he said.
It is natural to focus your gaze on one point and then another, but today’s 3D displays, VR headsets, glasses, and goggles have only one fixed focus. For instance, said Marescaux, “You can’t read a book and decide to focus your eyes far away and look at the leaves on a tree.” While your eyes naturally focus on the faraway object, with a 3D display, you are forcing your eyes to converge. The nausea or headache that follows is due to the vergence-accommodation conflict.
“The solution is to reconstruct the light wave that comes into your eyes, and the only way to do it is with true [versus the 19th century stage illusion, ‘Pepper’s Ghost’] holography,” said Marescaux.
This requires diffractive optics in the sense that a pixel must be very small, less than half the wavelength of the light impinging on it, to properly diffract the light. Having such small pixels has two effects, said Marescaux. First, “you have a very good diffractor, and the light waves interfere with one another. That’s how we are reconstructing this 3D image coming back into your eyes. The other effect is because those pixels are so tiny, you can pack many of them on a single chip. With normal imaging devices, you have megapixels. We’re talking here about gigapixels.”
Founded in 2022, Swave has its roots in research at Imec. In the late 2000s, Imec started exploring how to do holography and came up with “nice demonstrators, where you can actually show holography with a binary modulation,” said Marescaux. At the time, the research institute was convinced that MEMS would be the solution, but “MEMS do not scale below 1 µ, which means you have some diffraction, but your field of view is quite narrow.”
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