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SPIE Photonics Europe: Harvard student tops AR/VR design challenge

27 Apr 2018

Zhujun Shi awarded top score for her presentation on metamaterial-based waveguide displays.

Students Zhujun Shi from Harvard University, David Dunn from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Ori Avayu of Tel Aviv University, have won first prizes and €5000 each at the inaugural SPIE Optical Design Competition, held April 25 during the SPIE Photonics Europe event in Strasbourg, France.

In all, nine students walked away with prizes from the event, dedicated to optical developments for augmented, virtual, and mixed reality (AR/VR/MR) applications. Shi, a member of Federico Capasso’s research group at Harvard, claimed the top score in the competition, for her presentation on the potential for metamaterials to improve the AR/VR experience.

Metamaterial advantage
Entitled “Wide field-of-view waveguide displays enabled by polarization-dependent metagratings”, Shi’s presentation showed how components based on the new class of optical materials can deliver high-quality images - alongside possibilities for additional degrees of freedom in polarization manipulation, and a smaller form factor than traditional liquid crystal lenses.

The competition is the brainchild of Microsoft’s chief optical architect, Bernard Kress, and was judged by representatives from a “who’s who” of the AR/VR sector – including, among others, Google, Huawei, Facebook-owned Oculus, Nvidia, Zeiss, and Jenoptik.

Describing the competition as an “amazing experience”, Kress added. “Its success was due to the quality of the student designs entries aimed at solving practical industrial problems in the exciting fields of VR and AR, and also to the commitment of the industrial sponsors.”

He also praised SPIE’s role in the event’s organization, particularly for finding a way to bring students and pioneering industrial technology companies together, to solve real problems with cutting-edge optics.

“I was very glad to see student entries from all over the world, including Europe, China, the Middle East, US and Russia,” Kress continued. “Also, the impressive number of female optical engineers participating in the challenge - with the first prize going to a female researcher - was very uplifting, and shows that new exciting research fields such as VR and AR have the power to attract a very diverse, inclusive and excelling group of optical engineering students.

“Eventually, such exciting new initiatives have the power to transform the gender representation and revolutionize the traditional field of optics and photonics.”

Conference debut
The competition formed part of the “Digital Optics for Immersive Displays” conference. Held for the first time at SPIE Photonics Europe this year, it proved to be one of the best-attended conference strands at the event.

Intended to help students to bridge the gap between traditional optical design and tangible industry expectations for contemporary immersive display products, it featured two rapid-fire “pitch” sessions to the judging panel.

Second prizes of €2500 went to Miaomiao Xu from the University of Arizona, Shuaishuai Zhu from China’s Harbin Institute of Technology, and Simon Thiele from the University of Stuttgart.

Third-place winners Bharathwaj Narasimhan from VR optics developer Limbak, Stan Larroque,from mixed reality firm SL Process, and Austin Wilson from the University of Arizona each won Nvidia Titan X Graphics cards.

The prizes, together worth more than €50,000, were contributed by heavy-hitting “Big Tech” sponsors including Google, Microsoft, Facebook/Oculus, Huawei Technologies, Leia, and Amazon, alongside optics industry firms Jenoptik, LightTrans, Zeiss, and Zemax, and semiconductor industry giants Synopsys, Applied Materials, Lambda, and Nvidia.

Prizes were awarded by a group of local Strasbourg dignitaries representing the “Eurometropolis” cross-border co-operative group, and the French Tech Alsace technology transfer organization.

SACHER LASERTECHNIK GMBHPhotonTec Berlin GmbHAVANTES BVScitec Instruments LtdPhoton Engineering, LLCSPECTROGON ABSynopsys, Optical Solutions Group
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