Avegant is creating a unique head mounted display that uses an impressive virtual retinal display, a screen-less technology that projects an image directly onto your retina. After trying the Avegant HMD for myself, I sat down with CEO Edward Tang to learn more.

After reading Engadget’s glowing reaction to the supposedly unnamed Avegant HMD (a little digging revealed Verus as a possible name), I was pining to give it a try myself. I met up with Avegant at Engadget Expand New York this past weekend to try on the unique head mounted display. I came away extremely impressed and hopeful for things to come from the company.

The Avegant HMD uses a virtual retinal projection display (VRD) consisting of a single LED light source and an array of micro-mirrors. This differs from normal screens in that with a VRD there is no actual screen to look at. Instead, a virtual image (in the optical sense) is drawn directly onto your retina. Avegant tells me that the secret sauce to the incredible image quality is the device’s ability to separate where the light of the image is generated from where it is modulated.

Update (11/12/2013): I asked Avegant CEO Edward Tang to clarify how the VRD works

The way the image is created is first by generating light with a single low-power 3-color LED. We sequence through the colors on the LED so no color filters necessary. The light is conditioned to be as natural as possible before it hits the array of micromirrors, then it gets reflected into your eye.  Remember that there is no screen, and that the image is never formed until it hits your retina.

It took years to create and scale this custom optical deign to generate both a very comfortable, natural light source and to project onto the retina correctly.

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The current prototype supports IPD and individual diopter (eye focus) adjustments, both of which are expected to carry over to the consumer release.

Incredible Image Quality

avegant virtual retinal display lenses

I saw two different demos using the Avegant HMD prototype. The first of which was a series of standard side-by-side 3D videos, running from a laptop, which absolutely blew me away.

At one point I was looking at a sea turtle in shallow coral waters. Sunlight was beaming down from the surface and illuminating the turtle’s shell in a spectacular way—it was one of the most vivid and natural things I’ve ever seen on any display. The scene before me looked incredibly real, even though the field of view is not at immersive levels.

The image quality was also extremely impressive. The videos I saw looked to be at least 1080p to my eyes, but Avegant told me that they were only 720p, and while the Avegant HMD technically doesn’t have pixels, the micro-mirror array (and thus ‘resolution’) is 1280×800. Perhaps it’s the 100% fill factor, or the more natural light—whatever the case—I’m now a believer that there is more to a display’s quality than resolution. Avegant is definitely on to something special here.

It should be noted that I saw some blurring on around the edges of the image, but Avegant assured me that it would be fixed in future iterations.

“Source Agnostic”

avegant vrd hmd

The second demo I saw was Call of Duty: Ghosts, with headtracking, running on a PS3. This highlights one of Avegant’s big advantages: plug and play compatibility with lots of existing content and devices. The headtracking to controller mapping was done using a third-party box.

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In my interview (above), Avegant CEO Edward Tang told me that they want the HMD to be as “source agnostic” as possible, with the end goal being a battery operated display which could be used anywhere from your computer to your smartphone to your game console.

Call of Duty: Ghosts didn’t look nearly as good as the side-by-side 3D videos and instead looked closer to what I would expect from a normal 720p display. I noticed some significant color-fringing when turning my head. The discrepancy was jarring… how could the same display look markedly different from one piece of content to the next (I saw absolutely no color fringing with the prior demo)? When I asked about this, Tang told me that Call of Duty: Ghosts unfortunately only runs at 540p on the PS3. He also suspected that the signal may have been interlaced, which could explain the color fringing. I’m also fairly certain that the game was not running in 3D. It’s possible that real world imagery is better represented with VRD technology than CGI; I’ll need to get my head back into the Avegant with more content to be sure.

Virtual Reality and the Avegant HMD

avegant verus head mounted display

While the display quality might have been amazing with the right content, the 45 degree field of view positions the Avegant HMD more toward consumption of existing content than immersive virtual reality. Tang told me that Avegant wants to support the massive library of existing content and games that are out today rather than waiting for the creation of immersive VR content.

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I was happy to hear Tang tell me that there’s no technical reason they can’t push their tech to a field of view suitable for immersive virtual reality. I get the sense that Avegant wants to get things stable with their HMD as primarily a content-consumption device, but that they’ll be watching the VR world carefully and possibly move in that direction when the time is right—and I certainly hope that they do—having the same display quality with an immersive field of view would be positively amazing.

Crowd-funding Planned for Q1 2014

avegant head mounted display concept form factor

Avegant plans to take their VRD head mounted display to a crowd-funding platform in Q1 of 2014 and intends to have the product in consumer’s hands later that year. So far the company isn’t mentioning anything about pricing.

Tang told me that the prototype I saw was primarily a proof of concept and that they expect the final form-factor to shrink significantly. Avegant CTO Yobie “The Yobster” Benjamin teased me with some exciting form-factor possibilities, a few concepts of which Avegant shared with Road to VR (above right).

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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."
  • WormSlayer

    Not surprising that one of the first things you asked them about was higher FoV. Sticking to ~45° is just lumping them in with other useless cruft like the Sony HMZ’s.

    • Mageoftheyear

      But possibly now more relevant than the HMZ’s? How do they compare Ben?

      • Ben Lang

        It will come down to price. Sony basically priced the HMZ series out of any sensible range, somehow they managed to make it more expensive for each iteration!

        I haven’t had my head in an HMZ for a significant amount of time recently, but from what I recall from using it several times is that the Avegant looked at least as good and perhaps better due to the ‘natural’ look of the light coming off of the image.

        I wish everyone could see the same clip of the turtle that I described in the article, it was a rather awe inspiring moment to see what looked like real sunlight reflecting off of its shell.

  • Flavio Parenti

    Impressive. I guess the fact that it projects the light directly on the retina is going to scare many consumers… but no screen door effect? This is awesome.

    • Paul James

      Education is key here I guess, as is said in the interview, light is projected onto our retina all the time and we don’t think twice.

      • Mageoftheyear

        Well the majority of the time doesn’t light reflect off surfaces and our retina just absorbs this bounce? Actually focusing on a light source (whether a lightbulb, the sun or a monitor in a dark room) does create eye-strain. I infer this from my own experiences of staring at one of those :P

        It’s a pity Ben didn’t get a chance to watch a whole movie on the unit as that would have been a good litmus test.

      • Untold Games

        I agree. But educating people to new tech can take much longer than the life span of a product… I’m so curious about the no screendoor effect. It’s actually the most annoying thing in the oculus.

  • Paul James

    I’m disappointed that they’re not considering a higher FOV at this stage, but I can see their angle. One thing Avegant has going for it is that they can offer a truly portable, low profile media display for use with mobile devices – something I simply haven’t seen yet. It’s already slimmer than all the opposition and this is an engineering prototype.

    And, if you hardwire high FOV and the requisite distortion means you’ve instantly nullified everyone’s media collection.

    Now, if they could find a way to allow adjustment of FOV dependant on requirements you’ve got an awesome proposition. :)

  • Mageoftheyear

    Damn Ben, you’re really clocking in the interviews nowadays! :P

    It’s kind of surreal to see all these VR pioneers where as little as two years ago there really was nothing happening (from a consumer perspective.) I think what this article drives home for me is that specs take a back seat to the experience that is provided.
    The flip side to that is that experience is a very subjective thing to communicate, so my hope is that HMD makers out there don’t get lost in a field of marketing speak and instead find a way to clearly illustrate where they provide the best experiences – and be frank about where they don’t.

    • Ben Lang

      Thanks Mage; it’s a lot of work but we’ve got more to come!

      I think Apple has played a huge part in the last decade in getting people to focus on the experience rather than specs. I learned through years of hands-on experience with testing smartphones and tablets that specs alone can rarely quantify the usability of a device.

      Take for instance smartphone cameras. Android devices are always pushing megapixel count, but I’ve seen consistently better photo quality from comparable iPhones even with lower megapixels.

      Resolution is very useful to compare one LCD to another, but having had my eyes in the Avegant, it would seem that the rules don’t apply in the same way for this very different display technology.

      There’s definitely lots of marketing weasel words that get tossed around and we’ll do our best to call it out where we see it, but the VRD tech looks very promising.

  • crim3

    An array of micro-mirrors? Are we talking of a DLP chip?

    • Fredz

      Yes, at the start of the video you can see two chips in front of the eyes with the DLP logo printed on them.

      I guess the blue knobs on the left and right are the RGB LEDs and that there are two DMD micromirrors somewhere inside the glasses with lenses and/or mirrors to reflect the light toward the eyes.

  • eyeandeye

    Great interview. One of my friends brought this device to my attention a few weeks ago since I guess his brother-in-law or something is one of the engineers. Since then, I’ve had two burning questions, one of which was answered in the video.

    1. If the FOV could be expanded and if the device could then be used for VR purposes, and

    2. What happens if you move your eyes? It looks as if the image is beamed in from pretty much straight ahead, so if you look left, right, up, or down too far (moving only your eyes, mind you) wouldn’t the image get cut off in strange ways when your pupil moves out of the “beam”?

    • Mageoftheyear

      No. 2 is a very interesting point indeed. Perhaps this is a part of the reason why they are hesitant to expand the FOV?… Because doing so would exacerbate this artifact?

    • crim3

      Because they are not beaming a ray of light into your eye in the way you are imagining. You are looking at the image that the array of micro-mirrors if forming. So, there is actually a screen, a special one, and the image is formed before entering your eyes.
      In my opinion is a really nice invention, but I don’t like how they are promoting it. Light is light, no matter if it’s direct or reflected. What matters is color and intensity, not if it comes from the source or there is a mirror in between. And they are not beaming rays of lights in your retina in any different way that the light coming from pixels of a regular screen does, that’s why they are using lenses.

  • Psuedonymous

    I’m still a little confused as to how ‘projecting onto the retina’ differs from the Oculus and other collimated displays (that also result in an image focused on the retina, simply with a much larger focal plane in the light path), and skeptical that their claims that ‘reflected light’ is visually distinguishable from light modulated by an LCD (other than the contrast advantage of DLP).
    I’m also a worried about it using a DLP engine if it’s colour-sequential (rather than three-chip with a bulky dichroic integrator): see Abrash’s post on colour fringing (http://blogs.valvesoftware.com/abrash/why-virtual-isnt-real-to-your-brain/). Other small-FoV DLP-based microdisplay HMDs suffer noticeably from this fringing during head movement..

  • Julian

    Excellent interview Ben and a very interesting product.
    Did he say anything about IPR at all? This projection technique has been talked about for some time and it would be interesting to know where his partner was before.