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CES 2016: helmets, drones and automobiles

07 Jan 2016

German optics giant Zeiss makes its debut at the Las Vegas event as photonics-driven advances abound.

With organizers the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) estimating that 20,000 new products were launched at the giant CES 2016 event in Las Vegas this week, to say that sorting the wheat from the chaff represents a challenge is clearly something of an understatement.

What does seem apparent this year is that advances in drones and virtual reality headsets attracted the global media’s attention, and that much of the automotive industry now classifies itself as a sub-sector of consumer electronics.

It'e certainly the case that plenty of the innovation on show in virtual reality, drones and cars is now based on optics and photonics technology. Consider that Zeiss, one of the very oldest names in optics, made its CES debut at this year’s event. Like many, Zeiss was showing off a new virtual reality headset – in its case, the “Zeiss VR ONE”.

It may not have generated the same media acreage as Oculus Rift, but according to the German firm the smartphone-based platform boasts a “premium” immersive experience, including a 100-degree view, thanks to the incorporation of its own precision optics.

Hitting another of the CES 2016 touch points, Zeiss is targeting applications in UAVs, its VR ONE set up to allow users to experience the view from inside the cockpit of a drone.

“This delivers a unique experience, flying from the drone’s point of view via a live video stream,” claimed the firm. “As the user’s head turns, the camera point of view changes on the drone.”

Senior product manager Franz Troppenhagen highlighted the optical angle, adding: “By combining premium Zeiss optics with innovative applications, we’re just now starting to tap into the potential for virtual reality.”

From drones to cars, and senior executives from both Volkswagen and General Motors gave keynote talks in Las Vegas.

Herbert Diess attempted to salvage some of VW’s diesel-tarnished reputation with talk of “new Volkswagen” and – in a clear sign that cars now fall under the consumer electronics umbrella – described the new e-Golf Touch as a “smartphone on wheels”.

But in terms of optics-driven automotive innovation, it was perhaps Ford that made the most significant announcement.

Revealing that it was extending its fleet of research-level Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicles (pictured here) from ten to around 30, the US car maker highlighted the importance of a new lidar sensor that has a longer range than earlier versions.

That technology comes from Californian headphone and speaker firm Velodyne, whose “PUCK” lidar units boast a range of 200 meters, said to make them the first auto-specific lidar sensors capable of handling different driving scenarios.

Crucially, the latest design does allow Ford to reduce the number of lidar sensors on its autonomous vehicles from four to two, while cutting overall costs and collecting just as much useful data.

“Adding the latest generation of computers and sensors, including the smaller and more affordable Solid-State Hybrid Ultra PUCK Auto sensors helps bring Ford ever closer to having a fully autonomous vehicle ready for production,” reckons Jim McBride, Ford’s technical leader for self-driving vehicles.

DigiLens and BMW
Another CES 2016 innovation straddling optics and the automotive industry came in the form of DigiLens’ waveguide technology for motorcycle head-up displays (HUDs).

Said to create a “completely immersive, mixed-reality” experience for a rider, the DigiLens HUD is said to display key information through a wide field-of-view waveguide optic, without disrupting concentration.

“The waveguide display is a new class of display essential to all augmented reality (AR) developers,” announced the Silicon Valley firm. “It combines crystal-clear transparency with a high-brightness, color information overlay. After ten years of nanomaterials and holographic optical development, DigiLens has delivered performance exceeding its larger automotive and aerospace HUD offerings, but at a fraction of the size and price.”

The new waveguide is just 3 mm thick, and positioned just in front of the rider’s eye to create a long-range focal point – said to be an industry first. DigiLens says that the key to the development was printing complex holographic diffractive optical structures into the display waveguide, which has eliminated the need for a more bulky projection-based optical system.

In Las Vegas, the HUD featured on a motorcycle from BMW Motorrad, clipped magnetically into a helmet. “The waveguide optic sits in front of the rider's eye, avoiding any line of sight disruption and accommodating eyeglasses,” added DigiLens. “The holographically printed waveguide optic is so lightweight, simple and easy to manufacture it is almost disposable.”

BMW’s bike also featured laser headlamps, following on from previous CES shows in which the German car company first unveiled the novel forward lighting technology on its concept and high-end vehicles.

Intel et al
Among the other keynoters in Las Vegas was Intel CEO Bryan Krzanich. With the emphasis firmly on positioning the logic chip maker as an enabler of new wearables and gesture-controlled music there was more mention of Lady Gaga than lithography or device development. However, Intel is another company exploiting optics technology.

Krzanich presented several examples, from a “smart helmet” for industrial applications made by Daqri that combines thermal imaging (thanks to a FLIR camera) with an Intel processor and a liquid-crystal-on-silicon display unit.

Intel’s “RealSense” 3D camera technology, which first got an airing at CES two years ago and is designed to enable more immersive virtual experiences with its ability to “see” depth, also featured heavily this time. Krzanich entertained the CES 2016 crowds with applications ranging from depth-sensing drones to personalized shoes (I’m not making this up) from New Balance - mapped using RealSense – and (no really) a hoverboarding butler.

Elsewhere, microdisplay developer Kopin ticked both the drone and virtual reality boxes with its launch of what’s claimed to be the world's smallest high-resolution virtual reality system.

CEO John Fan said that innovation in small optics was critical to that technology, while Kopin also revealed a high-definition binocular display module for what is apparently the emerging market for competitive drone racing.

Helmets, drone and automobiles aside, a few of this year’s announcements were in the more traditional CES area of consumer devices, with Las Vegas witnessing the launch of the first laptop PCs to feature organic LED screens - in the form of Lenovo’s “Yoga” ThinkPad and HP’s "Spectre x360".

CeNing Optics Co LtdIridian Spectral TechnologiesABTechTRIOPTICS GmbHECOPTIKOptikos Corporation HÜBNER Photonics
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