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Whether you think it’s the future of everything or just a useful tool that will be part of the tech mix we’ll be using regularly in a few years, augmented reality is a rapidly evolving field with one major downside – like VR, it can go you feel sick
For example, US soldiers who tried Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses last year suffered from “physical impairments that impede their use,” including headaches, eyestrain and nausea, according to Bloomberg reported.
While the technology “could deliver $1.5 trillion in net economic benefits by 2030” according to PwCthis disease is a massive inhibitor of AR and VR growth.
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One startup looking to tackle the problem is based in Cambridge Lark opticswhich has developed a way to work around the problems that cause these problems.
“In the real world, we perceive depth by rotating and focusing our eyes. Two different clues must harmonize. However, for all existing AR glasses, these indications are fundamentally inconsistent,” explains Pawan Shrestha, CEO of Lark Optics.
The focus on a “virtual screen” in augmented reality glasses means users must switch focus between the real world and the augmented world. This inequality of depth causes physical discomfort and ailments such as nausea, dizziness, eyestrain and headaches.
What makes Lark Optics different, Shrestha says, is that it projects the augmented reality image onto the user’s retina. This means that no matter what your eyes are doing, the AR is always in focus to adapt to the real world around you.
So far, the startup has developed a proof of concept and is now working on refining its demonstrator model. Shrestha says they ran two successful user studies with their proof of concept; one in his own laboratory and one at an external partner he prefers not to name.
When the technique is ready, they want to use a fabulous Model for making the components they design, which they then sell to OEMs that make AR headsets.
Given that they’re tackling such a fundamental challenge to mass AR adoption, it’s not surprising that other companies are tackling it differently (more on that below). But Shrestha says his startup’s approach is the most efficient in terms of processing power and battery power and doesn’t interfere with the user’s field of view.
Shrestha grew up in rural Nepal (“really rural… I was almost nine years old before I saw electric light”). He says his parents’ enthusiasm for his education eventually led him to New Zealand, where he earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Waikato.
Eager to develop technology that he could commercialize, he says he’s developed one interferometer. Although that endeavor didn’t work, his work led him to a PhD at the University of Cambridge, where he discovered the commercial potential of a new approach to AR displays.
“It was a scientific challenge, but it was also something that could touch the lives of many, many people,” he says.
Shrestha co-founded Lark Optics (formerly known as AR-X Photonics) with his friend Xin Chang and Daping Chu, who previously supervised Shrestha and Chang’s PhD work. The trio have been working together for about a decade, but only got serious about Lark Optics last year.
Shrestha says they were joined this week by a new hire, Andreas Georgiou, who previously worked at Microsoft as a senior researcher in the field of optical engineering.
The Lark Optics (LR) team: Weijie Wu, Dr. Pawan Kumar Shrestha, Professor Daping Chu, Dr. Andreas Georgiou, Dr. Xin Chang
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shrestha says being based in Cambridge is a major benefit for her, with a community of experienced advisors around her and access to relevant investors. He is particularly inspired by the advances of tech startup Micro LED Porotechwhich has raised overall $26.1 million to date.
And Shrestha has warm words for the Enterprise Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering, from which he is a part. This offers up to £75,000 in equity-free funding to cover salaries and business expenses, as well as mentoring, training and coaching. This allowed him to start developing Lark Optics as a company.
Lark Optics itself raised a pre-seed round of £210,000 last October, Shrestha says, and will conduct a seed round in Q2 this year.
As mentioned above, others approach the problem of AR disease in different ways. LetinAR uses a “pin mirror” method, Kura Technologies developed a “structured geometric waveguide eyepiece” while VividQ “calculate[s] Real-time holograms on low-power devices and integrate[s] them with off-the-shelf display hardware.”
another company, This real develops holography-based solutions to address depth issues in 3D displays.
But Shrestha says these competing technologies either require very high data throughput with associated computational and battery power overhead, or require very high-resolution displays. And while some techniques decouple the AR display from the real world like Lark Optics does, Shrestha says they’re “like looking through a chicken fence.
“We solved the problem without significant degradation in processing power, battery power, or artifacts. So I think our approach is the best.”
Lark Optics’ goal is to establish itself as the best optics for AR, VR and mixed reality glasses.
“We want to exploit the full potential of AR and VR. Now we have AR and VR that you can wear for 20 minutes or 30 minutes. We want it to feel as natural as looking at real objects, VR or AR and allow people to use it for all day and everyday use.”
Shrestha sees the biggest challenge in achieving this as recruiting the right people in what is a fairly specialized area. But he’s optimistic that attracting just one or two high-level people will end up attracting more, and supporting a good seed-round raise in the coming months won’t hurt either.
AR, VR and MR have been massively hyped in recent years, but there have been questions about how much future they have. Investors are concerned about Meta’s massive spending on the Metaverse and Microsoft downsizing in its HoloLens division, which is struggling to turn it into a viable business, show that there’s no straight line from here to a future where this technology is widely adopted.
But the public markets’ current jitters about tech company stock prices and spending is far from the end for AR, VR, and MR. Apple’s first headset is on the horizon, which will no doubt spark another wave of interest in the space (although the latest report says it’s been delayed by two months, Until june).
If technologies like Lark Optics’ can help prepare AR, VR, and MR for the mainstream, the startup could be well-positioned to reap the rewards.
The article you have just read is from the Premium Edition of PreSeed Now. This is a newsletter covering the product, market and history of startups created in the UK. The goal is to help you understand how these companies fit into what’s happening in the world and the startup ecosystem.
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