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How 3M Shrank the Problem of Bulky VR Headsets

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Originally published on the 3M News Center

“Your face looks like a shoe box.”

Commenting on the first VR headsets on the market over a decade ago, one 3M employee said:

These early units had a reputation for being bulky.

“This was the biggest problem in the industry,” said Susan Kent, director of R&D labs at 3M.

That is, until headset makers turn to 3M for help.

The result is a breakthrough moment in VR hardware that propels the entire industry forward.

“It’s like going from a CRT TV to an LCD TV,” says Susan. “Once people use it, they can’t go back.”

Using something called a pancake lens, 3M was able to reduce the overall size of the headset by 50% and significantly improve image quality and resolution.

3M first set out to develop VR hardware after speaking with headset makers at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Showcase (CES), the world’s largest technology trade show.

“They just asked us if we could make the headset smaller,” Susan says. “We quickly realized that we could improve image quality by an order of magnitude and not look cartoonish.”

The innovation process is not easy. The technology took 3M scientists five years to perfect.

“It’s not just about taking classes and reading textbooks,” said Susan. “It was all self-taught.”

Before pancake lenses, VR headset makers were stuck using Fresnel lens technology popularized in the 1800s. Fresnel lens technology became popular in the 1800s, helping to brighten lighthouses on ships at sea. This use in headsets required a significant distance from the user’s eye to the lens, adding weight and size to early units.

3M did not invent the optical architecture of the pancake lens. However, 3M is the first company to successfully demonstrate the viability of pancake lenses in a VR headset when combined with its patented reflective polarizer technology.

“The reflective polarizer is the key element,” says Susan. “This is a really big change for the industry.” May 2022 Information Display Society 3M Wins Display Component of the Year Kudos to the implementation of the pancake lens, the HARP lens.

“This major breakthrough is an important milestone for the emerging VR market. Bulky, heavy headsets have for years hindered accelerated consumer adoption. Dr. Huang describes the use of pancake lenses as follows: Published article by UploadVR. 2023 will be a pivotal year For consumer adoption, as other manufacturers plan to launch their own VR headsets.

“We’ve reached a point where the hardware is good enough,” Susan says. “What you need now is great content to build your business.”

3M owns more than 180 patents related to VR optical technology and believes it is well-positioned for the growing market.

“We got here by listening to our customers,” says Susan. “We want to be a place where they can come and solve big problems.”

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At 3M, we apply science in collaborative ways to improve everyday life as our employees connect with customers around the world. For more information on 3M’s creative solutions to global challenges, please visit: www.3M.com or on twitter @3M Also @3M News.

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