Harvard’s Next Big Step in Optics & Virtual Reality

As the concepts of virtual reality (VR) become more ingrained in the technology of day-to-day life, capability improvement of these systems must keep up. With expectations high, VR has to deliver or risk being seen as an over-hyped initiative. The early indications are promising: VR is being integrated into everything from cars to sunglasses, touchscreens to video games.

With that in mind, encouraging and impressive news emerged out of a lab in Harvard toward the end of 2017. Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) announced the creation of a metalens: in essence, a single lens that can focus the entire spectrum of light in one beam.

In the past, a lens was stacked to achieve this distribution of the light spectrum. This led to bulky lens configurations that made placing VR in thin consumer products (like phones and headsets) very difficult. Metalens technology has the potential to change this.

As Federico Capasso, a senior fellow and researcher at SEAS put it, “Metalenses are thin, easy to fabricate, and cost-effective. This breakthrough extends those advantages across the whole visible range of light. This is the next big step.”

Optics are very difficult to make in miniature, particularly in products designed for the consumer market. Beyond the physics involved in a reduction of size, lenses must remain well-defined and energy efficient (not to mention durable). Researchers used a design of paired titanium dioxide nanofibers to overcome some of the difficulties faced in the past.

Papers and articles in both Nature and the Daily Mail suggest the team at Harvard has the ambition to continue evolving the metalens concept. A widely reported goal is to create a lens at 1 cm, and given the quick progress the SEAS team has shown so far, it’s difficult to doubt them.

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