Apple purchases holographic AR lens startup

The acquisition of Akonia Holographics is fueling Apple “glass” rumors.

Apple recently confirmed its purchase of Akonia Holographics, a Colorado-based startup specializing in holographic storage and the development of AR (augmented reality) lenses that can be used in AR headsets, glasses, or other wearables.

The company confirmed the purchase to Reuters, but didn’t elaborate on the reasoning behind it, providing its standard explanation: “Apple buys smaller companies from time to time, and we generally don’t discuss our purpose or plans.”

Akonia was founded in 2012 by a group of holography scientists, and according to the company they hold more than 200 patents for holographic systems and materials. This includes new high FOV (field of view) AR lens solutions such as the Akonia HoloMirror, as well as holographic data storage solutions, holographic technology manufacturing equipment, and more.

The signature technology in Akonia’s lenses is its advancements in volume holography, something that the company claims allows it to offer high performance transparent lenses at a low cost. According to Akonia, its HoloMirror technology can be incorporated into “the thinnest, lightest head worn displays in the world,” meaning they presumably won’t be as limited by bulky battery pack requirements or the need for a clunky headset.

The company states that the volume holography techniques it has pioneered offers a combination of “performance, transparency, and low cost” for future wearables, and allows for full-color performance alongside a high FOV, although exact FOV (field of view) measurements haven’t been disclosed. Its HoloMirror solution (although this name is likely to change after Apple’s acquisition) utilizes a single layer of media, i.e., a single thin lens similar to those found in standard eyeglasses. This helps reduce system complexity and allows it to be used in a wide variety of smart glass display architectures, according to Akonia.

So how does it work exactly? Well, volume holography itself is quite a hefty topic to tackle, but essentially it refers to the ‘stacking’ of thousands of holograms (hence ‘volume’) on top of one another (the structure itself will still be measured in micrometers). This creates a three-dimensional optical structure wherein each hologram can be decoded (viewed) independently due to its unique light diffraction properties. Imagine taking a stack of highly transparent pictures and overlaying them on top of one another, you won’t really be able to see much because each image is different so everything turns into a blurry mess. By using volume holography, however, it is possible to stack thousands of holograms on top of one another, but when viewed by a suitable detector (e.g., AR glasses), the holograms can be viewed independently of each other.

Time will tell what kind of device (if any) is born from this merger, but Apple is rumored to be working on its own ‘Apple Glasses’ device internally codenamed “T288,” which is said to feature an 8K display in each eyepiece. The device is said to be slated for a 2020 release date and will feature a newly developed custom processor, but please bear in mind that all of this is based solely on rumors, so nothing concrete can be confirmed at this time. Akonia itself has also gone quiet, and unfortunately aren’t offering a lot of info or images to the public.

What do we think?

Microsoft’s prototype AR glasses revealed last year, could we expect a similar form factor from Apple’s eventual contender? (Source: Microsoft)

Unfortunately, there is little to no information regarding how such a device could be powered when introduced into a small form factor such as glasses. AR headsets usually address this problem by building the processor, data storage, and other components directly into the headset (if untethered), but this is much more difficult with a thin pair of glasses. Last year, Microsoft revealed a similar pair of experimental glasses also using holography, but it sported only limited performance and still required an external processor to be carried around with it.