AntVR, an early VR startup which struggled with several XR headset projects that ultimately didn’t find traction, has reemerged with novel optics which can instantly transition between AR and VR modes.

Founded in 2014, AntVR is the China-based VR startup originally behind an early crowdfunding campaign for a PC VR headset (which didn’t ultimately catch on) and a more recent crowdfunding campaign for an AR headset which wound up tanking the company after failing to raise enough money to get the headset out the door. The company claims it has since drastically shrunk its staff and picked up some R&D work which earned enough money to refund backers of its failed AR headset.

And now the company is back with something that’s actually quite interesting. At CES 2023, AntVR was showing off its ‘mixed waveguide AR optics’, which uses a novel approach to keep a slim profile, while at the same time including a dimming feature to instantly switch between see-through AR and full VR modes. Although the company demonstrated their tech working in a pair of glasses frames, AntVR doesn’t plan to manufacture its own headset this time around, but instead is hoping another company will license the optical design and integrate it into their own headset.

AntVR was showing three different sizes of its optics, a 6mm thick version with a claimed 56° field-of-view, a 9mm thick version with an 85° field-of-view, and a 10.5mm thick version with a 120° field-of-view.

AntVR’s 120° field-of-view prototype | Photo by Road to VR

Naturally, the most visually immersive among them (the 120° FoV) was the most interesting to me, and it also stands apart from the other two because it uses two displays per-eye (or you might call it two halves of a display, per-eye). Near as I can tell, this is how it works:

Diagram by Road to VR

There’s essentially half of a display above the eye, and half of a display below. Both images are guided through the lens, then fused to form a single image as the light heads toward the eye. It’s a neat approach because it means the width of the whole display pipeline can essentially be cut in half, which is how these optics manage to stay relatively thin while providing a wide field-of-view. Granted, at 10.5mm, these are definitely still thicker than glasses lenses (which other companies have achieved), but certainly more compact than many birdbath optics that we see with top-mounted displays.

And the AntVR optics have another little trick up their sleeve: an instant dimming function which allows you to switch between transparent AR and full VR at the press of a button.

While the dimming didn’t cut out 100% of the incoming light, it was definitely up there at maybe 90%, which provided an effective backdrop to focus on the virtual content in front of you without being distracted at what’s on the other side of the glasses.

This kind of dimming isn’t new (almost certainly achieved with LCD), but it ‘s interesting to see it in action and imagine the possibilities of a future headset that might include this instant switching functionality.

The AntVR prototypes were rather crude, and there’s a lot of questions left to be answered before knowing if they’d be truly practical in a headset; things like maximum transparency, distortion of the real world, color-reproduction, power consumption, cost, if they can be canted, and how much of a seam between the two images will be apparent in real-world use (the demos at CES were mounted in place, so there was no head-tracking to test with). And frankly, one serious potential challenge with this setup is how much it may distort the user’s eyes when see by outsiders—nobody wants to walk around with that ‘coke bottle glasses’ look.

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Still, the compact form-factor spurred by the half-and-half display layout, and the combination of instant opacity switching makes these quite interesting and something I’ll be keeping my eye on.

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  • Till Eulenspiegel

    It’s actually very easy to create this tech:

    Using 2 polarizing filters (sunglasses lens), you can rotate one of the filter 90º – it will filtered out all the light completely.

    Adding a 3rd polarizing filter will create a weird Quantum effect – it will actually let in more light. They called this ‘The Quantum Venn Diagram Paradox’.

    • Badison

      If it’s so easy, especially mechanical rotation, then why haven’t others done it?

      I think hat even if you physically rotated them you are missing some critical things about the user experience, etc.

      • Jistuce

        They have, actually. Rotating a polarizing filter is literally how LCDs work. Including the simple case of LCD shutter glasses.

        That the movable polarizer is in a liquid state rather than a solid state is a minor detail.

    • ViRGiN

      Yeah you’re right. I’ve done it myself while being stuck in the traffic. Twice.

  • Sven Viking

    Definitely wasn’t expecting new tech from AntVR (or new anything, admittedly).

  • brandon9271

    “one serious potential challenge with this setup is how much it may distort the user’s eyes when seen by outsiders—nobody wants to walk around with that ‘coke bottle glasses’ look.”

    if looking silly is that much of a concern, VR might not be for you. :) lol

    • Ben Lang

      VR is usually used indoors and solo. Any glasses-like AR headset would ostensibly be portable, otherwise we’d just stick to large passthrough headsets like Quest Pro for indoor AR use.

      • brandon9271

        True, I guess I just like the mad scientist, coke bottle look! lol ;)

    • Jistuce

      And then there’s folks like me, who are already on the lens distortion train.
      Coke bottle glasses isn’t a fashion statement, it’s a way of life.

  • How is the dimming compared to the one of Magic Leap 2?

    • Ben Lang

      Magic Leap 2 doesn’t get anywhere near as dim, but as far as I know, it’s dimming regions in ML2 are dynamic (targeted) whereas the AntVR optic dimming happens everywhere at once. That means ML2’s dimming can be used to enhance contrast of the AR image, while the AntVR optic is more about switching from an AR to VR mode.

  • psuedonymous

    I think every AR startup experiments with slapping a liquid crystal dimmer in front of a view-through display at some point. As well as the gotcha of dimming the ‘off’ state external view appreciably (which is often desirable for view-through displays), what always trips things up is the resultant polarisation element stuck into the system limiting optics choices (e.g. messes up pancake optics) and that the ‘blocked; view just isn’t all that good at blocking out external light. A few mess about with extra elements like adding electrochromic layers to further diffuse light, but most eventually decide that switching between AR and VR use modes is actually desired so infrequently that a manually switched shade is both monumentally cheaper and dramatically more effective.

  • toastytoaster

    LCD shutters have existed for decades, cost few dollars and can literally be used with any AR optics. Not a “feature”. Reason
    others don’t use it is, as you mentioned, it doesn’t block all of the
    light and also filters out 55% of the light as uses polarizers

  • ¥DK¥

    Seems like a complete waste of time and resources to me….

  • Lucidfeuer

    “A Failed China-based XR Startup”…no wonder, this it the stupidest idea ever, everybody knows polarizing filters can be used for screen or lenses opacity, there are tons of reasons why people are not investigating that yet, and that’s all they have to propose?

    They deserve to fail and be hired in start-ups or companies where there are actual product conceptors and designers while they stick to their skillful but unimaginative engineer jobs.

  • Hard to fail if they never really tried. Just a few tech demos and alot of promises.