More than four years after I first caught wind of their tech, CREAL’s light-field display continues to be one of the most interesting and promising solutions for bringing light-fields to immersive headsets. At AWE 2023 I got to check out the company’s latest tech and saw first hand what light-fields mean for immersion in AR headsets.

More Than One Way to Focus

So first, a quick recap. A light-field is a fundamentally different way of showing light to your eyes compared to the typical displays used in most headsets today. The key difference is about how your eyes can focus on the virtual scene.

Your eyes have two focus methods. The one most people are familiar with is vergence (also called stereoscopy), where both eyes point at the same object to bring overlapping views of that object into focus. This is also what makes things look ‘3D’ to us.

But each individual eye is also capable of focusing in a different way by bending the lens of the eye to focus on objects at different distances—the same way that a camera with only one lens focuses. This is called accomodation.

Vergence-Accommodation Conflict

Most XR headsets today support vergenge (stereoscopic focus), but not accomodation (single-eye focus). You may have heard this called Vergence-Accomodation Conflict; also known to the industry as ‘VAC’ because it’s a pervasive challenge for immersive displays.

The reason for the ‘conflict’ is that normally the vergence and accommodation of your eyes work in tandem to achieve optimal focus on the thing you want to look at. But in a headset that supports vergence, but not accomodation, your eyes need to break these typically synchronous functions into independent functions.

It might not be something you ‘feel’ but it’s the reason why in a headset it’s hard to focus on things very near to you—especially objects in your hands that you want to inspect up close.

The conflict between vergence and accommodation can be not just uncomfortable for your eyes, but in a surprising way also rob the scene of immersion.

Creal’s Solution

And this is where we get back to Creal, a company that wants to solve the Vergence-Accommodation Conflict with a light-field display. Light-field displays structure light in the same way that we see it in the real world, allowing both of the focus functions of the eyes—vergence and accommodation—to work in tandem as they normally do.

At AWE 2023 this week, I got to check out the company’s latest light-field display tech, and came away with an added sense of immersion that I haven’t felt in any other AR headset to date.

I’ve seen Creal’s static bench-top demos before, which show static floating imagery through the lens to a single eye, demonstrating that you can indeed focus (accommodate) at different depths. But you won’t really see the magic until you see a light-field with both eyes and head-tracking. Which is exactly what I got to do this week at AWE.

Photo by Road to VR

On an admittedly bulky proof-of-concept AR headset, I got to see the company’s light-field display in its natural habitat—floating immersively in front of me. What really impressed me was when I held my hand out and a little virtual turtle came floating over to the palm of my hand. Even though it was semi-transparent, and not exceptionally high resolution or accurately colored, it felt… weirdly real.

I’ve seen all kinds of immersive XR experiences over the years, and holding something in your hand sounds like a banal demo at this point. But there was just something about the way this little turtle looked—thanks to the fact that my eyes could focus on it in the same way they would in the real world—that made it feel more real than I’ve ever really felt in other headsets. Like it was really there in my hand.

Photo by Road to VR

The trick is that, thanks to the light-field, when I focused my eyes on the turtle in my hand, both the turtle (virtual) and my hand (real) were each in proper focus—something that isn’t possible with conventional displays—making both my hand and the turtle feel more like they were inhabiting the same space right in front of me.

It’s frustratingly impossible to explain exactly how it appeared via text alone; this video from Creal shot through-the-lens gives some idea of what I saw, but can’t quite show how it adds immersion over other AR headsets:

It’s a subtle thing, and such added immersion probably only meaningful impacts objects within arms reach or closer—but then again, that distance is where things have the potential to feel most real to use because they’re in our carefully watched personal space.

Digital Prescriptions

Beyond just adding a new layer of visual immersion, light-field displays stand to solve another key problem, which is vision correction. Most XR headsets today do not support any kind of prescription vision correction, which for maybe even more than half of the population means they either need to wear their correctives while using these devices, buy some kind of clip-on lens, or just suffer through a blurry image.

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But the nature of light-fields means you can apply a ‘digital prescription’ to the virtual content that exactly matches the user’s corrective prescription. And because it’s digital, this can be done on-the-fly, meaning the same headset could have its digital corrective vision setting change from one user to the next. Doing so means the focus of virtual image can match the real world image for those with and without glasses.

Continue on Page 2: A More Acceptable Form-factor »

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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."
  • I’m following this company as well after your initial recommendation, Ben, and I agree it is one of the most interesting startups around. The VR scene the lightfield display creates is “more 3D”, feels more real, and it is just amazing

  • ViRGiN

    sounds like a company who wants to get bougt, but nobody cares

    what was the last acquisition or products released by the underdogs?
    everyone paints picture of greatness

    everything here has strong revolutionary kickstarter vibes.
    meanwhile, nothing ever crowdfunded came really to reality or goals.
    lynx r1? arpara? pimax?
    laughing my a$$ off

    • Tomas S

      Hi ViRGiN, I understand your concern and even share frustration from the market. XR is very hard. But CREAL has a different business model. We (I am from CREAL) are a display technology company. We don’t make or plan to make headsets. What we show are technology demonstrators. We integrate and license display to products of others. Example of such model is Microvision with its display tech in MS Hololense. Hence you won’t see a CREAL headset, maximally “CREAL inside” label.
      We do it for wider range of products including vision care instruments, see our web. AR is however our main mission and dream.
      Whether anyone cares about our tech is just not public. So stay tuned.

      • Max-Dmg

        He trolls everything, just ignore him lol.

      • ViRGiN

        Fair enough. Appreciate dropping by.

      • silvaring

        I’m quite surprised to be seeing a light field display in a headset form factor. I’m guessing the main challenges here are going to be numerous, especially if Magic Leap (who’s original larger prototype) seemed to struggle at getting the technology down to a compact size. Have you guys been communicating with Karl Guttag to have something published on your technology? He seems to be one of the most insightful and well established industry voices to really bring the average tech enthusiast in and make them more familiar with your guys tech and where the biggest challenges would be.

        • Tomas S

          Hi silvaring. Glad to hear that. In fact the headset is almost two years old. Since then we work on a significantly smaller display. Ben shows the proof of concept of it – the one with the normal lens – you can see a mockup of the target form factor on the same photo, on the table in the background. We hope to reach it still this year. Max early next year. We have roadmap to even smaller one.

          Yes, we know each other with Karl Guttag quite well, but I cannot speculate when and what Karl writes.

          • GmailIsDown

            I hope in a few years all the major VR/AR headset companies will integrate your technology after overcoming the current limitations and hurdles. If my understanding of the article is correct, it solves a fundamental issue that has been bothering people since the beginning of VR – difficulty/inability to focus on scenes and objects very close to the eyes comfortably.

      • CrusaderCaracal

        Hey mate. You’re best off blocking him, he’s a well known troll and has nothing good to contribute. All he does is just whine and get angry at people for liking stuff he doesnt

    • CrusaderCaracal

      You always have something to whine about

  • Ookami

    imo lightfield is the future of vr. I can’t wait to see mainstream headsets start using it

  • wheeler

    I wonder how hard is it to sell people on the idea of lightfields. I mean, I believe a proper simulation of one is absolutely essential for the future of both VR and AR. So many potential use cases of VR and AR are basically irrelevant until this problem is addressed, and I find it quite frustrating when XR fanatics seem to deliberately ignore this elephant in the room (even though it’s associated problems are so well studied). Improve any other facet of the display to whatever degree that you please (in fact, I’d say we’re already “good enough” when it comes to many other metrics)–it won’t matter until the fatigue and perceptual conflicts caused by stereo flat displays are solved.

    But it seems like it’s such a hard thing to explain. What I’ve personally come to find is that people don’t understand how both light and vision work, and so they don’t understand how stupendously lacking regular stereo flat displays are. It doesn’t help that I’ve yet to see one article or video that even explains it well, most opting for vague explanations like “it makes things blurrier”. If one explains it this way rather than explaining the 3d dimensional nature of light, it makes the entire concept seem completely inconsequential to the average person.

    And even when demoing one I can imagine many would not immediately understand the value, as they would probably take it for granted (SkarredGhost actually mentioned how easy it is to “take it for granted”). And then when going back to their regular VR displays hours/days later, they probably don’t understand what is actually causing them discomfort. If I were to demo these lightfield displays, I would probably have a “stereo flat mode” in the lightfield headset and have the user A/B test the two so that they may see the difference side by side. But even then, the major discomfort does not occur with stereo displays until the 15 minute mark or so.

  • Nevets

    Anyone heard if it can correct astigmatism? A lot of the population have this.