In a patent filed in 2017 and issued today by the United States Patent Office, Apple describes a VR headset designed to be compact and comfortable.

Spotted by Patently Apple, Apple’s patent titled Optical System for Head-mounted Display makes it clear up front that this particular design is aimed at creating a VR headset that’s more compact, specifically by redesigning the optical system.

“If care is not taken, a head-mounted display may be cumbersome and tiring to wear. Optical systems for head-mounted displays may use arrangements of lenses that are bulky and heavy. Extended use of a head-mounted display with this type of optical system may be uncomfortable. It would therefore be desirable to be able to provide improved head-mounted [displays].”

Digging through the patent’s dense description, it becomes clear that a ‘catadioptric’ optical system is fundamental to this design, one which uses both reflective and refractive elements, including varying polarization elements, to manipulate light along the optical path.

An simplified example of a catadioptric optical system | Image courtesy HHahn (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Catadioptric optics, commonly used in high magnification optical systems like telescopes and microscopes, ‘fold’ the optical path to create a more compact arrangement. Rather than light being simply bent as it passes once through a typical lens, in a catadioptric optic the light bounces back and forth a number of times along its optical path before eventually emerging from the other side.

A diagram of Apple’s catadioptric optical system | Image courtesy USPTO

Microdisplays, which are small but offer high pixel density, are desirable for VR because of their compact size but require lenses with high magnification. Lenses with high magnification often need to be very thick, or can be reduced to a Fresnel design (as is common on consumer VR headsets today), though the Fresnel approach introduces its own set of challenges. It seems likely that Apple is investigating the use of catadioptric optics as a means of creating a compact, high magnification optic specifically to be used in conjunction with a microdisplay. Microdisplays are mentioned in the patent, though, wanting the patent to be as broad as legally possible, other types of displays are mentioned as well.

The patent further describes a series of polarizing elements which are used to reflect some of the light back toward the display to be absorbed by a polarizer. The document explains this is to maintain contrast and avoid stray (unwanted/misaligned) light from being seen by the wearer.

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While the patent largely focuses on the optical design and arrangement of optical elements, a significant portion describes varying approaches to manufacturing the design, which are said to potentially increase the durability and clarity of the system.

Among other details, the patent also touches on the possibility of such a headset including a bevy of sensors for various tracking tasks, and specifically notes that cameras could be employed for measuring the environment (as with inside-out tracking) and sensing the user’s eye position. The latter likely being used for eye-tracking applications like foveated rendering.

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While Apple is clearly interested in AR and VR, the company has no shortage of patents for technologies which it has never used. So while it’s interesting that this patent delves into some practical details of manufacturing, it’s better to consider patents a look at what the company may be thinking rather than precisely what they’re doing. That said, Apple is increasingly involving AR and VR in its ecosystem, including embracing VR on MacOS, and launching ARKit on iOS, which many suspect to be a stepping stone toward an eventual AR headset product offered from the company.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Torben Bojer Christensen

    So basically, Apple is trying to get a patent on combining existing technologies such as catadioptric optic with Microdisplays, even though they might not end up using it themselves, but in any case, they would be able to prevent others from doing the same (or at least having to pay royalties to Apple) by seeking a patent on such a thing? If that is even possible, the patent system itself is surely overdue for a much needed revision!

    • That’s the job of the patent office to determine. I am assuming here that the patent is not approved yet, just listed?

      Also, I agree, patents stifle growth but then again you need to protect your IP as long as it is proved to be unique enough.

      • Andrew Jakobs

        Except if you throw some money at the patent officer in charge, your patent will get aproved no matter if there has been prior art….

        • That would be illegal though so the patent is worthless. Although proving that could cost you your entire life savings if going up against one of the corps.

    • NooYawker

      Patents need major MAJOR overhaul. The things companies are allowed to patent are ridiculous. And that goes for all companies, they all do it.

    • Jack H

      It would be great to have the ability to simply link prior art or otherwise nullifying content as a comment section of published patent applications.

      • I think how they got around that is is use in VR specifics cases, which many patents are written now narrow their use to prevent overlapping patent infringement. A I remarked earlier, a number of the patent claims, appear eerily like some things I have seen in the sensors attached to telescopes for long exposures.

    • The number of things Apple has received patents for baffles me. As you Mention Torben, none of this is unique or groundbreaking, and I am pretty sure we can find a astronomical research project that has already does this. The becomes clear when you see Apple spending so much time talking about polarized light, which is more of a concern when dealing with long exposure times. Also, a doublet has already been used by OSVR, which actually had to add film over the lens to reduce the screen-door effect due to its superb sharpness. It also made the headset heavier than similar dual OLED panel HMD designs. I can’t wait to see the patent paper that was scrapped that use of large parabolic mirrors.

  • Jean-Sebastien Perron

    Their VR is gonna be less expensive that Vive surely. Vive is so overpriced for an unfinished prototype.

    • Nicole

      Goℴgle gives you 99 dollars per-hour to complete easy tasks from home .. Do work for only few hours & stay more time together with your own friends … You can also have this specific job!!!on weekend I bought a gorgeous McLaren F3 after just earnin $20400 this-past/five weeks .it is absolutely the best work but you wo’nt forgive yourself if you do not hop over to it.!pg01s:➩➩➩ http://GoogleWinSmallBusinessOpportunity/make/$99/everyhour ♥♥y♥♥b♥♥n♥i♥♥j♥u♥♥♥f♥m♥f♥♥g♥♥a♥♥♥f♥s♥♥♥y♥i♥♥♥w♥p♥♥♥c♥u♥♥y♥♥y♥♥w♥d♥o♥♥p:::::!of142d:wkyuk

    • You talk like apple isn’t overpriced. xD I bet that HMD from apple will be pricey, there’s not much wrong with this, I’m just saying.

    • NooYawker

      This childish nonsense has gotten old, and VR is still 1st gen.

    • Andrew Jakobs

      I hope you’re being sarcastic as we’re talking about Apple here, a company know for selling way overpriced products..

  • traschcanman

    Perfect fit for eMagin’s 2K x 2K high brightness (+5,000 nit ) OLED micro displays . They now have a mass production partner :

    “Separately, the Company announced an agreement with a U.S.-based chipmaker to support scaling of mass production for the consumer AR and VR markets. This agreement will provide supply chain development assistance for eMagin to enable prototype and mass production of OLED microdisplays. As part of this agreement, eMagin’s partner will provide raw materials sourcing support necessary for scaling to mass production while helping the Company meet the cost requirements of high volume consumer segment original equipment manufacturers (“OEMs”).”

    • Michele

      Google is giving to people of all ages $99 per-hr to complete few services with a computer .. Do work only for just few time and fun greater time with your friends … You can also catch this simple work!!!on Monday I got a gorgeous Citroën DS after just earnin $14523 this month .it’s certainly high-quality process however you can now not forgive yourself if you do not have a peek at it.!sf69g:↭↭↭ http://GoogleRealWorkFromHomePartTime/getcash/$98/eachhour ♥x♥d♥♥♥o♥♥♥j♥♥g♥♥j♥s♥♥♥o♥♥z♥♥s♥♥g♥♥♥r♥♥t♥x♥♥a♥♥♥e♥♥♥r♥♥t♥♥♥j♥o♥♥♥n♥♥z♥d♥♥♥d♥r:::::!hh892h:wky

  • These big companies patent everything that comes to their mind. Apple has said multiple times that it is not interested in VR. Maybe they’re thinking about a hybrid AR/VR glass, based on VRvana technology

  • 洪文璋

    Such Folding optics for VR can actually reduced working distance between display and lens in half. More details for the design can refers to “Pancake Optics”