AR and VR headsets of the future could have clearer, lighter, and wafer thin lenses, thanks to a new manufacturing process that uses nanotechnology to not only shrink the thickness of the lens, but also correct for the sort of color distortions common to the lenses currently used in VR headsets.

Unimaginably small, discrete nanostructures in the meta-lens bend incoming light to varying degrees. | Image courtesy Capasso Group, Harvard University (CC BY-ND)

Update (4/24/18): Harvard researchers shared new developments in their meta-lens research this week in an article in The Conversation.

While 1mm thick meta-lenses capable of bending incoming light to a singular focal point have been previously demonstrated, the researchers say they’ve refined their design, allowing for arbitrarily adjustments to the transmission speed of light passing through different points on the lens. By modulating the transmission speed, the light can be made to arrive simultaneously at the focal point, resulting in a sharper image, the researchers say.

To [reach the focal point at the same time], [light from the edges of the lens] has to travel faster [than light from the center]. So we built some nanostructures that transmit the light more quickly, and others that do so more slowly. We put the faster-transmitting nanostructures at the edges of the lens, so light travels through them faster than in those in the middle. This effectively helps the light from the meta-lens edges catch up with light at the center, so that all the rays focus together.

Though nanotechnology sounds exotic (and expensive), the researchers say that this approach could lead to better and cheaper lenses, and specifically suggest head mounted displays as one potential application:

Once designed, meta-lenses can be created as part of a wider mass production process: for instance, of VR headsets or augmented reality glasses. They can also be used in place of more expensive ground-glass camera lenses on smartphones and laptops, reducing weight, thickness and cost of portable devices.

Original Article (2/26/15): The news came out of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), detailing a technical improvement on a prototype ‘flat lens’, which now uses what they call a “glass substrate and tiny, light-concentrating silicon antennas” to redirect light.

The updated design differs from ‘flat lenses’ of the past by using nano-sized silicon antennas to immediately bend incoming light, that thanks to the recent introduction of the electrically insulating material, can now redirect red, green, and blue (the three colors used in displays) light in the visible spectrum at variable angles.

What this now means is that complicated effects like color correction, which in a conventional optical system would require light to pass through several thick lenses in sequence, can be achieved in one extremely thin, miniaturized device,” said principal investigator Professor Federico Capasso of SEAS.

Taking out the bulky lenses of modern VR headsets and replacing them with the new generation of ‘flat lenses’ could not only significantly reduce the headset’s physical size and weight, but could also entirely remove ‘chromatic aberration’, a misalignment of colors caused by the fact that lenses bend light of different colors at slightly different angles.


The phenomenon has traditionally been corrected by adding a number of lenses to create a bulky achromatic lens setup to shift red, green and blue colors of the spectrum closer to the center focal point. The more lenses, the closer you are to ‘perfect’, but the solution is adds cost, weight, and size with each addition of corrective lenses.

chromatic-abberation-correction (1)2
An example of chromatic aberration correction from Oculus. Notice the separation of colors toward the edge of this scene. Through the Rift’s lenses, the colors are aligned.

Another less weighty method of chromatic aberration correction can be achieved by digitally shifting colors in the software, the method primarily used in consumer VR headsets currently in development that use a single lens, like the Oculus Rift. But it isn’t perfect, and works only when the eye is looking directly into the center of the lens, revealing artifacts of chromatic aberration when users look elsewhere on the lens (as they tend to do naturally when presented with a wide field of view).

Oculus Research Reveals New Multi-focal Display Tech

Founder of Oculus VR Palmer Luckey, said this a little over a year ago in regards to another compact lens solution, the fresnel lens, and oft-proposed solution to reduce the bulk and weight of VR optics:

…they kill contrast, add a variety of annoying artifacts, and don’t actually save all that much weight. They don’t help with form factor, either; Fresnels cannot come close to matching the focal length/magnification of other optics tech.”

There’s no word yet on when the lens tech will be ready for production—or for what cost—but it’s possible that upgrades of this type could follow a similar path set out for future VR headset displays. As demand for VR grows, the co-opted smartphone screens taken from the mobile ecosystem could give way to more robust, custom-built displays that would offer higher refresh rates, resolution, and a wider field of view.

Demand would likely also increase for VR-specific tech in optics, eventually giving lens manufacturers a good reason to throw their chips in with the virtual reality crowd too, but only as soon as the ‘flat lens’ is safely out of the R&D labs and into the marketplace.

However, established fields like photography, astronomy, and microscopy could make good use of the new, slimmed down optics, and help bring the technology to market. So VR might have to play second fiddle and keep rummaging through the parts bins of other industries for a while longer—but you know what they say about good things and waiting.

Additional reporting by Ben Lang.

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  • Don Gateley

    I’d like to know their transmission efficiency relative to glass or plastic. If they require brighter displays to get equivalent image brightness I don’t think they’ll get anywhere in today’s configurations. Also unmentioned is dispersion which is what lowers the contrast of Fresnel lenses. Scott, if you can get more information on these factors it would be a scoop.

    It may have more of an impact on the “other” display technologies such as MagicLeap, HoloLens and Avegant Glyph but with what they’ll disclose about their tech who the hell knows.

  • Raphael

    VR badly needs new lenses. Fresnel was fine for 60’s US naval flight sims but has no place in 2018 tech.

    • Billy Wallace

      Why bring up that loser palmer luckey? He lies and steals, can’t trust him or anything he says. Pathetic.

      • Foreign Devil

        Billy I believe you have a fixation.

        • Raphael

          I believe you’re right.

      • Get Schwifty!

        This describes about 2/3 of government, media and corporations… I fail to see your point ;)

        • Billy Wallace

          I am listening to Jeff rense interview a guy about killing falun gong for organ harvesting in China. They kill the children alive without anesthetic so the organs are fresh, reminds me of fallout 4 vr I just played, bad times where humans are so cruel.

          • Raphael

            You’ve been surfing the web again haven’t you Billy.

      • brubble

        Whoa, easy there tiger. Did Palmer push you around or steal your pudding cups in school?

      • Dave

        Theres always one village idiot. I trust him a lot more than I trust you! What have you done to progress VR?

        • Billy Wallace

          In 2012 Palmer publicly credited me with giving him the idea for the rift in 2009 at mtbs3d with leep vr help. I took him under my wing when he was still an ignorant newbie. he also promised an “open source” kickstarter that he lied about. Like his used car salesman father Brett luckey taught him. It shocked the “rift up” upgrade team that was going to bring hd screens to dk1 and palmer and iribe and their lawyers threatened to sue them into oblivion. What did mark say about the people that trust him or his cronies? Dummies? What did Sean parker recently say about Facebook blood money made off of addicting kids by design? Blood money off children that palmer and carmack took happily. Am I the only one that thinks it’s wrong to harm our children for money?

      • DC

        What does Palmer have to do with Fresnel? He wasn’t even born yet.

  • oompah

    This is futuristic
    Thumbs up

  • brubble

    Neat-o! Very interesting bit of tech.

  • Yoshi Kato

    This is pretty cool stuff, but I think the technology is probably still 5-10 years in the future (for consumers). I’m thinking we’ll see other major advancements in VR optics within that timeframe.

  • Zach Mauch

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.