Reality is not enough. Augmented and virtual reality are revolutionizing the way that we look at the world – thanks in part to OSRAM technology.

Colorful fantasy characters during strolls in the park and flashing warning signals on a car’s windshield – augmented reality (AR) is taking over our daily lives. Pokémon Go and head-up displays in cars are just the beginning.

AR, the technology that merges the physical world with digital information and images, may still be in its infancy. Yet, the enabling technologies needed to unfold its full potential have recently materialized. Average estimates show that the market for AR technology is to be worth $50 billion in 2021. Every area of life will be impacted – leisure time, mobility and work. In years to come, AR will reshape the way we will learn, decide and act. It will become the new interface between humans and their environment, serving as a bridge that links the digital and physical world.

Our perspective will literally change as we move in this direction. Today, most AR applications are used on mobile devices. Increasingly, however, they are being integrated into hands-free wearables like head-mounted displays and smart glasses. Development is advancing at enormous speed: Sales of AR headsets alone are expected to skyrocket from a few hundred thousand today to over 20 million in 2021.

Working with eye contact

The modern working environment offers an initial impression of the new reality: Many companies are already testing wearable AR devices in assembly and service work. As a result, AR is not just replacing traditional manuals and training methods. It is also revolutionizing the way that we interact with machines. A virtual control panel takes the place of physical buttons and touch displays. In the not too distant future, users will be able to use smart glasses to look or point at a product or in order to activate a virtual user interface and operate it with gestures and speech. For example, a factory worker will be able to walk along a row of machines, monitor the performance parameters of each piece of equipment and fine-tune them contactlessly.

This is just one of the unbelievably many use cases of the technology. There is simply no limit to the range of possible applications. As a result, the technology will completely transform the entire value chain: the way that companies design products, train employees and support customers.

Mixed doubles

Virtual reality (VR) is a close relative of augmented reality. While AR integrates digital information into the physical world, VR replaces it with a computer-generated environment. At the moment, VR is primarily being used in entertainment applications. Increasingly, however, it is being applied in areas such as medicine and architecture as well as in training and product development. With the help of virtual reality, even geographically separate teams working with a virtual object can jointly learn, discuss and make decisions.

In the business world, AR will be much more widely used than VR. But both technologies are expected to move closer together and even merge in some areas: “Mixed reality” is the term that is used to describe the result. For instance, a product-development team can initially use AR to conduct a discussion on a physical product. It can then draw on VR to simulate future situations or to observe details of the virtual internal mechanisms of products.

Everything in view

Augmented and virtual reality work with the help of a broad range of optical semiconductor products, those that capture the user and environment and those that illuminate and project. OSRAM is the preferred supplier of both thanks to its wide and innovative range of infrared transmitters, lasers and photo detectors. “Virtually all leading makers of AR and VR devices rely on our lighting solutions,” said Eric Kürzel, the respective marketing manager at OSRAM Opto Semiconductors. “We are the technology and market leader in the infrared and laser area. Our unique range of technologies has turned us into the favorite partner in this emerging industry.”

The variety of applications extends from 3D detection of the environment and display projectors to eye and position tracking. Infrared and laser emitters facilitate the three-dimensional detection of objects in a room with the help of time-of-flight measurement of light impulses or the use of structured light. Visible laser diodes are used to project brilliant, high-contrast images very close to the eye on AR glasses. In turn, photo diodes and infrared emitters enable the position of a headset in a room to be determined and thus to track the head movements of the user in virtual reality. Eye tracking relies on infrared light to follow the direction in which the eyes are pointing. Not only the image detail shown on the display changes in the process. What’s more, commands will also be able to be issued through eye contact in the future. And, a further benefit of eye tracking is that only those parts of the display that the user is observing will be shown in high resolution (foveated rendering). This will drive down computation and energy consumption tremendously.

The new reality experience will thus depend to a large degree on its inconspicuous helpers. Eric Kürzel believes deeply in the technology: “Augmented and virtual reality will expand our view of the world. We are making sure that this view becomes a true experience.”