Bringing Augmented Reality to Real Eyeglasses

Curved lenses could be the key to consumer acceptance

2 min read

Bringing Augmented Reality to Real Eyeglasses
Photo: Carl Zeiss

If reality isn’t cutting it for you, just hold on; engineers are working on augmenting it. At least, they hope to show you more than what would normally be before your eyes, by adding systems to ordinary eyeglasses that would display images and data to enhance your experience.

“I believe in full augmentation,” says Ulrich Simon, vice president of corporate research and technology at Carl Zeiss, in Jena, Germany. An example of full augmentation, he says, might be a surgeon who looks at a patient he’s about to operate on, and sees the MRI image of the patient overlaid on her body. Simon spoke to a group of journalists during a March press tour of eastern German research institutions sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service, a publicly funded organization promoting higher education in Germany.

The idea of eyeglasses with enhanced displays is nothing new—Google Glass was introduced in 2012. But it hasn’t taken off, Simon believes, because it uses flat lenses and thus is just too obtrusive. “Why the Google Glass has issues is everybody sees you are wearing data glasses,” Simon says. Integrating the display into ordinary eyeglasses could make data glasses more attractive to consumers. “In the end, I would like to take my own glasses, my own prescription.”

It’s optically challenging to create displays on curved lenses, particularly since not every wearer will have the same degree of curvature. But Zeiss thinks it’s overcome that problem. In its design, light, controlled by optics and electronics in the frame of eyeglasses, would be delivered to the edge of the lens, then move through the lens by total internal reflection. In other words, it would bounce between the inner surfaces of the glass but not emerge—at least not until it reached a Fresnel lens overlaid on the prescription lens. The Fresnel lens, a variation on the concentric circles of glass that focus the beam from a lighthouse, would display the image in front of the wearer’s eye but not shine light directly into the eye.

The company displayed a prototype version of the glasses at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Zeiss says it’s “in talks with potential partners” who would develop other aspects of the system, such as the electronics, that would be part of a consumer-ready device. It’s too early to say when such a device might hit the market, but Zeiss is ready to scale up production of the lenses.

Zeiss has also entered the virtual reality market, with the introduction last fall of the VR-One, a pair of goggles that turn a smartphone into a virtual reality headset, much like Samsung Gear or Google Cardboard. Simon says the product gives the company experience with the type of optics involved, but now it’s up to others to develop the applications, mostly likely games, to go with the device. “We are not in the game business. We will not be in the game business,” he says.

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