Eye Lasers vs. Giant Mirrors: The Funky Face-Off in AR and China’s Ambitions

Augmented reality (AR), like virtual reality (VR), is divided into two main segments: consumer and commercial. Consumer AR glasses resemble normal spectacles and are inconspicuous. Commercial AR, which includes medical, scientific, industrial, enterprise, and other categories, does not have the same social acceptance barrier and can be as geeky as needed to reveal things that aren’t there.

Commercial AR shares the postulate with monitors that the more you can see, the more you can do. In AR, seeing more involves field-of-view (FOV), and one way to get an adequate FOV is to use a spherical half-mirror lens. Captain Tom Furness was the first to do that while at Wright Patterson in 1971. He later became a professor at the University of Washington and established the human interface technology (HIT) lab. Wright Patterson, an R&D center of the U.S. Air Force, aimed to augment pilots’ information scope by enabling them to see more and act sooner.

Test pilot wearing prototype augmented reality helmet, circa 1971 (Source: Tom Furness)

In 2018, Tracy McSheery from Phase Space conducted R&D for the U.S. Navy on AR headsets and found that a beam-splitting spherical lens system could be lightweight, work in various ambient conditions, and provide high-resolution content. His design has been copied many times, most famously by Meta, an AR company (2012–2019). Microsoft adopted the design for their HoloLens.

Meta’s copy of Phase Space’s large mirror AR headset.
The HoloLens (Source: Microsoft)

Recently, Dr. Li Xiaoyan, founder and CEO of Yixian (also known as Ezxxr), announced the EZXR or Yixian AR-Glasses platform, using a mobile phone as the display device. With the support of Yixian AR cloud full-stack capabilities, the Yixian AR-Glasses platform has accurate OST calibration capabilities, precise 6DoF (six degrees of freedom), 3D gesture interaction, and super-large space positioning and understanding capabilities. Yixian has formed a strategic cooperation with Zhejiang Shunwei Technology Co., Ltd., incorporating Shunwei’s deep experience in the optical field with Yixian’s core advantages in AR software and algorithms to create an optical solution more suitable for offline operations.

The headset provides an unspecified super-large FOV for an immersive experience, high light transmittance, and a high refresh rate of 120 Hz. Yixian believes it could meet the needs of fast-response scenarios like offline multiplayer competitive games.

During a press conference, Yixian announced strategic cooperation with Tencent Cultural Tourism. Based on this cooperation, Yixian will introduce Tencent Cloud’s open atomic capabilities, such as AI, audio and video, cloud rendering, digital humans, security, and maps, integrating them into related AR products and launching an integrated AR+ cultural tourism solution for subdivided cultural tourism scenarios like museums, parks, public spaces, and exhibitions.

The press conference, which invited Wang Wenjie, Executive Director and Executive Vice President of Sunny Optical Technology, Zhang Dehui, Secretary of the Party Committee and Chairman of Huangshan Tourism Development Co., Ltd., Wang Rui, Founder and CEO of Light Cloud, and Dr. Li Xiaoyan, said, “Let’s conduct an in-depth discussion on the theme of building an ecological community of metaverse and empowering the innovation and development of the virtual reality industry.”

Dr. Li Xiaoyan, founder and CEO of Yixian (Source: Yixian)

Ezar Advanced Technologies, formerly Hangzhou Yixian Advanced Technology Co., Ltd. (Yixian), is based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. Founded in 2019, Yixian’s history goes back further, as it was formerly known as the NetEase Artificial Intelligence Division, established in NetEase Hangzhou Research Institute in 2011. In 2015, the team entered the augmented reality (AR) field. Today, the company goes by the name Ezar. Ezar is focused on building a spatial digital intelligent AR terminal cloud platform based on full-stack, self-developed AR and spatial computing capabilities.

This all-in Chinese effort aims to bring AR into the mainstream of Chinese life, starting with exhibition centers and possibly evolving to gaming cafes. The headset design is basic, relying on the accelerometers, display, and audio in a smartphone for 6DoF. The cameras shown in the artist’s rendition will likely also be fed to the phone. It is reminiscent of the VR head-mounted display (HMD) that Samsung built a few years ago, which used a smartphone. The company suggested they could achieve two hours of battery life from the setup, which is more than enough for an exhibition or even game playing.

If the headset actually reaches production, there will be a list of compatible phones, with Oppo and Huawei likely being the first options. It’s highly unlikely that this headset will be offered outside of China.