Switzerland-based CREAL, which is developing a light-field display, has revealed its first prototype AR and VR headsets. The milestone marks ongoing progress in shrinking the once-bulky tech into something which can be worn on the head.

Compared to the displays used in VR and AR headsets today, light-field displays generate an image that accurately represents how we see light from the real world. Specifically, light-field displays support both vergence and accommodation, the two focus mechanisms of the human visual system. Creal and others say the advantage of such displays is more realistic and more comfortable visuals for XR headsets. For more on light-fields, expand our explainer below.

Light-fields are significant to AR and VR because they’re a genuine representation of how light exists in the real world, and how we perceive it. Unfortunately they’re difficult to capture or generate, and arguably even harder to display.

Every AR and VR headset on the market today uses some tricks to try to make our eyes interpret what we’re seeing as if it’s actually there in front of us. Most headsets are using basic stereoscopy and that’s about it—the 3D effect gives a sense of depth to what’s otherwise a scene projected onto a flat plane at a fixed focal length.

Such headsets support vergence (the movement of both eyes to fuse two images into one image with depth), but not accommodation (the dynamic focus of each individual eye). That means that while your eyes are constantly changing their vergence, the accommodation is stuck in one place. Normally these two eye functions work unconsciously in sync, hence the so-called ‘vergence-accommodation conflict’ when they don’t.

On more advanced headsets, ‘varifocal’ approaches dynamically shift the focal length based on where you’re looking (with eye-tracking). Magic Leap, for instance, supports two focal planes and jumps between them as needed. Oculus’ Half Dome prototypes do something similar, with support for a larger number of focal planes. Even so, these varifocal approaches still have some inherent issues that arise because they aren’t actually displaying light-fields.

While Creal has previously demonstrated its impressive light-field display technology, we’ve only ever seen in it large benchtop demos. Now the company has revealed its latest progress in shrinking the tech to fit into a head-mounted form factor. While its AR and VR prototypes are still fairly large, by 2022, the company says it expects its tech to fit into yet smaller form factors.

Image courtesy CREAL

Creal says these prototype headsets are ‘evaluation units’ which the company is sending to potential partners to demonstrate its light-field display. The company’s goal is not to build its own headsets, but to supply its light-field display technology to other headset makers.

CREAL AR Light-field Prototype

Image courtesy CREAL

The Creal AR headset prototype has a resolution of 1,000 × 1,000 across a 60° field of view, according to the company, which also claims ‘unlimited’ depth-resolution (meaning continuous focal planes), with the caveat that it isn’t truly unlimited but that the steps between each focal depth are “much smaller than an eye can resolve.”

The Creal AR headset prototype is tethered and uses an Intel RealSense sensor for 6DOF tracking and Ultraleap for hand-tracking. Below you can see a through-the-lens demo showing the ability to focus at different depths.

While the Creal AR headset prototype is approaching the size of something like HoloLens, the company claims it will be able to fit its light-field tech into a sleek glasses form-factor by late 2022. Doing so will require moving to a foveated version of its display which would see the central 30° of the field of view occupied by the light-field, while the peripheral view would be filled with non-light field imagery out to 60° total, the company says.

Image courtesy CREAL

Creal is also expecting to reduce power consumption from the current 2W down to 0.5W for the glasses-sized version, while boosting the eye-box to 8mm.

CREAL VR Light-field Prototype

Image courtesy CREAL

With its VR headset, Creal says it’s already employing the foveated light-field approach, with a 1,000 × 1,000 resolution light-field covering the central 30° of the field of view, and a 1,600 × 1,440 non-light-field view to fill out to 100° total. Because the light-field area is only 30° across, the resulting resolution is 40 PPD, which is approaching the retina resolution threshold (roughly 60 PPD). Below you can see a through-the-lens video showing the headset’s ability to focus at any depth in the scene.

The Creal VR headset prototype is using an Intel RealSense sensor for 6DOF tracking and includes eye-tracking from Pupil Labs, though the company notes that eye-tracking isn’t necessary for the light-field functionality.

Image courtesy CREAL

As with its AR headset prototype, the bulky VR headset prototype is a step toward a more compact version of the headset which the company expects to have ready by late 2022. By this point the company expects to integrate custom 6DOF and eye-tracking hardware (which would help further reduce the headset’s size).

Image courtesy CREAL

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With the company planning to use a foveated combination of light-field and non-light-field displays going forward, we’ll be especially interested to see how closely the two views manage to blend together.

Creal’s announcement of head-mounted light-field prototypes follows the company’s latest investment round of $7.2 million announced late last year.

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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."
  • LeoSpic

    Gfycat introduces some pretty bad comrpession artifacts, unless the provided videos were this compressed as well. Any chance you could host the videos on Vimeo or Youtube instead?

    I still noticed two artifacts: 1) some color non-uniformity and 2) In the second video at 41:00 when the black dodecahedron gets out of focus you can notice the defocused objects is not blurred, but split into several, with clear sharp corners even when not in focus by the camera. This may be due to the limited amount of fields vs real life. Not sure how much noticeable it will be in real life.

    Not sure how to feel bout the 30 degree limited lightfield section for VR.

    Is there any info on GPU requirements and SteamVR support?

    In any case way better than incremental tiny updates we see from others.

  • Amni3D

    I have a feeling CREAL is going to be a big name in the VR and AR scene.

    The 30 degree lightfield sounds like it can either be *just enough*, or way too small. I’d like to believe that range is only for their AR headsets, and their VR efforts would target something like a 50 or 60 degree lightfield.

    Looking forward to what HMDs get made with their tech.

    • highroller6661 .
    • LeoSpic

      For reference 32×18 degrees is your average monitor from an average viewing distance. Horizontally 30 degrees fits in the eye rotation comfort zone, so it’s less than your eye can rotate in but is the region you will be viewing most of the time. The catch as with Varjo is that the transition beyond the central region will appear less seamless and probably distracting as you reach the edge. That’s why static foveated regions with Oculus headsets are bigger than 30 degrees.

      I think Acer, HP, HTC, Lenovo and other notebook manufacturer who also sell HMDs will gladly adopt the optical system since they don’t make their own optical tech. The question is if this can be made to work in SteamVR or WMR and therefore in OpenGL, DirectX or Vulcan. Otherwise it’s gonna be a though sell for consumers or even many enterprise markets.

      BOM cost is also an issue. Neither DLP or fast LCoS are close to LCD panels in price sadly.

    • ¥DK¥

      Assuming they’re aiming it with foveated rendering using eye-tracking, it will be no problem at all

      • LeoSpic

        That’s not foveated rendering, that’s called foveated display in the scientific literature. And there’s two categories here called statically and dynamically foveated display. There’s no mention here that they are talking about dynamically foveated display, which has serious unsolved optical and mechanical challenges many researchers and other companies including Facebook haven’t been able to solve so far.

  • psuedonymous

    “which is approaching the retina resolution threshold (roughly 60 PPD)”

    1 arcminute is nowhere CLOSE to a ‘retina resolution’ It is, at best, a good value for line contrast acuity, but the human eye can see MUCH finer details than that. Vernier acuity is the next most obvious one (but far from the finest) at 1-2 arcSECONDs, 1/60 of an arcminute (or 3600 pixels per linear degree), and relevant when it comes to aliasing perception.

    • benz145

      I’ve heard a few industry sources concur on 60 PPD as a good baseline for ‘retina resolution’, but to your point, it isn’t a well defined term. If you have any good resources exploring/experimenting with the limits of human vision, I’d love to take a look (pun intended)!

      • Jack H

        “Vision” by David Marr is a good intro to how human vision works.

  • oomph

    Wow , This is the top notch tech for VR

    • Jorge Gustavo

      Magic….leap? I hope not

      • oomph

        I never though that even focus could be controlled

  • I like how every year you provide us updates about this very interesting startup. What a pity that this year you won’t be able to try its prototypes!

    • benz145

      Tell me about it!

  • Ad

    This is nice, and it’s good to see some other companies working on this kind of tech. I don’t fully get how it seems like they want the VR to be standalone. Just stick SteamVR trackers on it and make a bigger headstrap to distribute the weight of this toaster better. I hope they do a patent swap with Valve for the VR one and use the AR for themselves.

  • Sven Viking

    Does anyone know what method they’re using to produce the lightfields? Stacked displays? Are they true lightfields, e.g. technically capable of correcting for vision problems without corrective lenses?

    • Tomas Kubes

      We actually have a running project with a maker of ophtalmologic equipment to verify the suitability of our technology for use in a digital phoropter – a device used to examine your eye sight and determine needed vision correction.

      • Sven Viking

        Ah, nice! I was just talking about something similar here.

    • benz145

      They haven’t gone into detail about their method, but I know a spatial light modulator is involved.

      These are ‘true’ light-fields in the sense that there is no eye-tracking or additional rendering needed to focus on a near part of the scene vs. a distant part of the scene. Ie: You could render a single light-field ‘frame’ and be able to focus on it near or far—the ability to change focus is entirely baked into the light that’s presented to your eye at any given moment.

    • Jack H

      Based on some of their patent applications and what others have produced, it seems to be a type of time-multiplexed integral imaging display.
      Reasonably similar to this: https://www.cs.unc.edu/~maimone/media/Maimone_GTC2015.pdf

      Texas Instruments now allow their mobile/ lower power DLP displays to be driven in binary mode, meaning they are more suitable for sequentially showing the different integral images really fast as each LED in the grid sequentially illuminates the DLP.

    • JB1968

      I don’t know the details but I believe they must have found out something really cool during their CERN experiments :-) I really like they are not “faking” the lightfields so you can see the property of the true light with your own eyes without the need to have them tracked.

  • Kim from Texas

    It is clear that the photos for 2021 are renders. I wonder if the author of this article has seen any photos/video of the real 2021 headsets? I am more skeptical after all of the teasers from Magic Leap.

  • Lucidfeuer

    Given the state of these prototype, it could be usable in 10 years, lightfield display research is the fascinating end-goal for XR screens in the future

    • JB1968

      Well, of we have this amazing tech in 10 years I’m all into it. Looks like you are a bit impatient.
      So far no other company is able to do this stuff. And don’t count on the big players. They are satisfied to sell you the current same display tech(with slight upgrades) for the next 10 years.

  • JB1968

    I’m following the CREAL from the time they introduced the first bulky prototype boxes and really like their progress. Looks like these Czech guys from CERN might bring us some really next-gen consumer product.