Researchers at the University of Arizona and the University of Connecticut have developed a technology for augmented reality devices that superimposes data over three dimensions rather than two. The technique makes the user experience much more seamless and vastly reduces eye strain, making AR devices more attractive for long-term use.

Once battery and semiconductor technologies inevitably catch up with even the most demanding of us consumers, augmented reality devices like Google Glass won't be as conspicuous and functionally limited as they are right now. Eventually, their convenience might compel us to trade in our beloved smartphones for a pair of augmented reality goggles (or even contact lenses). That is, if our eyes don't have to pay the price for it in the meantime.

Superimposing data like directions, search results and real-time product reviews on top of the world around us can be extremely convenient, but it can also cause conflicting depth perception cues leading to eye strain, as your eyes keep switching back and forth between the data and the real world. If augmented reality is here to stay, we need to solve this issue to make it viable for long-term use.

Researchers Hong Hua and Bahram Javidi have developed a technology that addresses the problem in an elegant way. They developed a device, the "microscopic integral imaging display," which reduces eye strain by superimposing images that are three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional.

At first a small, high-resolution screen takes the three-dimensional image that you want to project and generates dozens of views of the virtual object from many different perspectives (see the picture above). Those images are then stitched together to generate a 3D scene. The final image is sent to a special see-through optical lens: when looking through the lens, you can see the 3D image sitting naturally in the real world, leading to single consistent view, and no eye strain.

The researchers built a prototype pair of AR goggles that uses their technique and were able to demonstrate its effectiveness, showing how the virtual image sits naturally within the environment whether your eyes are focusing on an object that's close or a long distance away.

Hua and Javidi are now working to improve the viewing angle of their device, as well as depth and spatial resolution. Considering how the supporting technology is evolving at a rapid pace, they are confident about their prospects for improving and then commercializing their invention.

A paper describing the advance appears in the journal Optics Express.

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