What an AR-startup of Izovac, Apple's long-standing supplier, is up to
26 years ago a group of Belarusian scientists founded the scientific and technical company Izovac Ltd. Today its thin-film coatings are used in optics, microelectronics, display devices, and its vacuum equipment is used to manufacture thin films for screens of iPhones and iPads. Over the last few years the team has been using accumulated experience in new areas for itself - for example, in solar energy and AR.
Dev.by visited the company and learned more about its new branch— Izovac AR, which creates AR-headsets. Recently the branch detached itself from the corporate parent and entered the HTP, too.
The first product was turned down by Steve Jobs
Following the collapse of the USSR, a group of Belarusian scientists originally from the Radio-Technical University, decided to establish a science-oriented business of their own.
— It was very important for the owners that the company develop at the merger of technological progress and science, - says Artem Artamonov, head of the Bureau of Optoelectronic Devices. - One of Izovac's first products was protective glass for CRT monitors that protected the eyes of users from bad radiation, glare, etc. This product enjoyed high demand in the early 90's. But Steve Jobs came to the arena and said: these things should not be on monitors, it's ugly. Then we changed the track quickly and launched a project for the manufacture of machines for thin-film coating of the kinescope itself.
At the beginning the company dealt with coating services only, and then it engaged in producing vacuum equipment.
— These might look as two stand-alone businesses. – contemplates Artamonov. – Why request a service, when you can buy the equipment? But that is not quite the case. Our businesses do not mutually exclude each other. Firstly, there are companies that are not willing to go deep into the process of producing optical elements and hire people to do it. Secondly, many of them have no need for serial production. It makes more sense to request a service when you need one or two batches.
Specialists claim that the number of applications of thin-film optical elements is enormous. For instance, they are used in video surveillance devices (cameras, lidars), remote sensing systems, telephones, cameras.
— Creation of thin-film technologies and vacuum equipment is science-intensive production. The thickness of coatings is thousandfold less than that of a human hair, - explains an expert in optics. - If the lens consists of 12 lenses, then it will have at least 24 covers, each of them with more than 10 layers. It is necessary to have professional production engineers who can correctly design the equipment, adjust the technological modes, spray the coating, etc.
This equipment is in highest demand in South-East Asia, where the main production of electronics is concentrated. Since 2008, Izovac installations have been used to produce touch screens for the iPads and iPhones.
— Very strict requirements apply to those willing to enter the chain of Apple suppliers. And we, together with our Taiwan office, worked hard to earn trust and conclude a contract with such manufacturers as TPK, LENS and others, - adds Mikhail Ivanovsky.
AR does not fit into vacuum machine building
At the moment Izovac is a group of companies that work in their own segments. For instance, Izovac AR is creating its own device for displaying information in front of user's eyes.
— Izovac AR was another pilot project that grew on internal research and development and design and experimental works, - Mikhail tells us. – Our competencies in thin film, coating and optics enabled us to enter this segment. However, AR hardly fits into the framework of a company specializing in vacuum machine building. For that reason, a decision was made to parcel this segment out into a spin-off – a stand-alone business.
In the course of manufacturing optical components, we saw that we can make, say, 1 USD on developing separate components, and if we manufacture the whole device, it will be worth 10 USD.
A device 7 people (electronics engineer, optician, constructor, .NET-developer etc.) are working on can be packed into anything: augmented reality glasses, a helmet with an augmented reality function etc.
The main criteria are that the user should have no need to touch the gadget and that the information should be displayed before the eyes in real time without hinderance.
— Since we are working the whole device, we have to make quite serious optical calculations. For example, it was necessary to calculate how light travels inside the waveguide, how to optimize the position of the mirrors, to avoid image distortion as the distance to the object increases. And it is not all that simple.
Also, when developing an AR-device, it is important to consider how a person perceives information. The fact is that eyes see things differently, you cannot display the same thing to both eyes. Since we have binocular vision (images obtained by each eye are combined into a single image by a visual analyzer - ed.), it becomes necessary to slightly shift the video channels to obtain a stereoscopic image. Plus, if there are any distortions, the brain automatically aligns the picture, sometimes resorting to optical illusions. And this makes it work harder, which results in headaches and eye strain.
Video module implementation
— Development of an AR-module started 3 years ago. First, we came up with a video module with a minimum number of components. It allowed to display the image on transparent or semi-transparent glass. The prototype we have today is already the 5th or 6th generation. The latter incorporated significant alterations: optical elements were added; the waveguide was completely overhauled. So, typical R&D development is in progress.
The intellectual component (design, engineering, software for built-in systems) is created inside Izovac AR, while manufacturing and assembly are outsourced.
Combining the real and virtual worlds in one image for the observer was a real challenge. The device that helped us flesh out augmented reality was the waveguide - a plate with inner coating sprayed in vacuum. To reduce its thickness, and thus the weight of the final device, we cut the plate into four pieces and arranged them. This allowed to reduce the thickness from a few centimeters to two millimeters.
Now about the display. We use micro displays 6.4 by 3.84 mm, on which full-color images are displayed. To get a contrast image with this type of display, you need an external illuminator, our display has a light-emitting diode. Light penetrates through a small lens, in which the image is converted and focused.
Production of optical elements costs us considerable effort. The fact is that surfaces of the elements must be perfectly polished and made in strict compliance with requirements. Making such details in a small amount (1-2 copies) for R & D purposes poses a challenge.
In the software, the most interesting task for us now is to track rotation of the head. It is important that the image does not just hang in front of the user's eyes, but changes depending on where the person is, from which side and at what angle they look at the object. These nuances are already embedded in the electronics of the device.
In the current version of the video module, we can send a video signal to the screen, exchange data with the card, program the device. But we still do not have enough sensors to see the depth and perspective of the image. It is early to say that development is complete.
Just like JARVIS from the Marvel universe. What are the applications of AR?
There are many options for using augmented reality, says Mikhail Ivanovsky, head of the marketing department. They include medicine, education, production, logistics, navigation, retail and other areas.
— If we talk, for example, about cars, in that case AR allows you to throw navigation and information about the place that we are passing by directly on the windshield, - says Ivanovsky. - A couple of years ago we visited "Roskosmos", where we heard: "Augmented reality glasses? Super, we want them!". And this is quite clear: astronauts have to navigate in large, uncomfortable suits, in which you cannot even leaf through a book. Augmented reality will expand human possibilities in space. In fact, we attach an electronic assistant to our vision, and this assistant displays information before the eyes in an unobtrusive form. Just like Jarvis, an artificial intelligence butler in the "Iron Man"
So far, the market is raw. We estimate that it will ripen in three to four years. We concentrate exclusively on the B2B market, since explaining the purpose of AR-headsets to general users is a challenge. At the demonstration of Microsoft HoloLens people did not understand why they would need to talk over Skype in augmented reality. The same happened to Google Glass. That is why it is necessary to seek application for AR-headsets on the B2B market.
In surgery, for example, augmented reality makes it is possible to display MRI data, project a real network of blood vessels and veins, take into account the physiological characteristics of a person during an operation, etc. AR is also applicable in emergency response units, for instance, when rescuing people during a fire. The rescuer can easily fail to notice the injured in a smoke-filled room, unlike an AR-headset with a built-in thermal imager.
Several companies in the world have already achieved certain results in this area, but we do not compete with AR-glasses and helmets. We are working, let's put that way, on the core of devices that implement the AR-effect. Indeed, our plans include developing headsets of our own, but now we are creating important components for such devices. We have already completed several projects for the customer.
— Industrial companies have established approaches, say, to equipment supplies. And, clearly, these approaches were transferred to Izovac AR. But that does not mean that we will follow the same track. If the approaches adopted by the parent company do not live up to the requirements of our product, we will adjust them for our own use.
We need to focus on solving technical issues, not adding new features. Someone from the IT business compared
Agile software development to a plain that builds itself on the go. In hardware, we will never get anywhere if we have no clear vision of what we want to get from the outset.
Having created a waveguide, we cannot change it anymore. The maximum we can do is test it and understand what the problems are, and then make the next generation without flaws. When we have our SDK, then, perhaps, we will build the development closer to software companies to finally create an airplane that constructs itself on the go.