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Moore’s Law Doesn’t Fly for Optical Components, Sadly

October 14, 2019

“Moore’s law” may sound ancient. The name brings to mind a monk scrawling a theory of the universe in a mountaintop monastery. But it was actually written in the 1960s by Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore, probably in an office park. 

Moore’s law stated that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double every 18 to 24 months. Despite frequent warnings that Moore’s law is nearing its end, so far it has held true. In 1968 there were dozens of transistors on a microchip. A couple decades later it was thousands. Now it’s billions. 

There are Limits to the Size of Optical Components 

Unfortunately, the same law does not apply to optical components. This presents a serious challenge to companies developing wearable augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) displays, which remain too large and unwieldy to be of use in everyday life.

 

This is roughly the size of most AR and VR systems, and for reference, what they look like on a dog. 

The reason that the miniaturization of lenses cannot keep up with microchips is the law of etendue, which dictates that the product of the beam diameter and the beam angle is a constant that can never be diminished, only maintained or increased.

If the size of optical components were following Moore’s law, being halved every year or so without any loss in functionality, a lens that was 10 mm wide in 2008 would have shrunk to 50 μm today — right at the limit of what can be seen by the human eye. 

I mean, we’re good — IRD Glass creates precision optical mirrors, optical filters, LiDAR components and laser components that are used in some of the most high-tech systems in the world — but even we cannot break the law of etendue.

So what does this mean for AR and VR technology?

To reduce the size of VR and AR systems, researchers have experimented with convex and Fresnel lenses as well as flat and curved display panels to balance the delicate needs of the user’s physical and visual comfort (close-up and far-away) and the need to provide a multisensory immersion.

As it stands, the majority of these systems are being put to use by defense customers that tolerate somewhat larger and heavier hardware in order to fulfil the most important part of their job, keeping soldiers alive on a battlefield. 

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