Andrew Masson is an IPilogue Writer and a 1L at Osgoode Hall Law School.
As a huge fan of science fiction and integrating technology with daily life, a recent Apple patent has piqued my interest. Although Apple seems to be under constant speculation, their patent Tunable and foveated lens systems (US patent 11086143) suggest the highly-speculated Apple Glasses with augmented reality (AR) functionality may have legs. This patent is intriguing for three reasons: 1) it suggests they are developing glasses; 2) the lenses may be a universal corrective lens; and 3) the patent suggests AR integration. I believe in the latter because the technology in the patent appears to overcome a significant limitation for developers creating AR headsets.
Functionally, without intervention, the human eye cannot simultaneously focus on both a real object and a virtual overlaid object because they exist at different locations. This is known as the vergence-accommodation conflict.
For example, imagine wearing glasses and then having a virtual image projected onto them while you're looking at something on your desk. Our eyes are only capable of focusing on one thing at a time, so either the real object on your desk or the virtual object on the glasses will be in focus. This has been a persistent issue for AR technology; the clear distinction between reality and the digital image breaks users’ immersion. Additionally, this can cause users discomfort while using the technology. Until the vergence-accommodation conflict is resolved, it is unlikely that AR functionality will be successfully incorporated into daily wear items like the highly-speculated Apple Glasses.
Apple’s patent outlines an “electrically modulated optical material”, referred to as “lenses” for simplicity, composed of multiple layers of liquid crystals. The patent suggests that the lenses would be capable of continuous independent adjustment for each eye, while also allowing for different portions of the lens to have different phase profiles and fixation points. This patent is not the first time that liquid crystals have been described in this way to overcome the vergence-accommodation conflict. However, I believe Apple has differentiated itself from the prior research based on its dual application of corrective lenses and an AR system.
The Cherry on Top
Although I find AR glasses interesting, I think they would be a niche market. However, creating glasses that can primarily function as a daily prescription glass will drastically increase public interest and adoption rate. This patent suggests that Apple recognizes this, and the technology’s main concern appears to be in the vision correction component. AR was only found in one section where it was only mentioned in two sentences. Time will tell if Apple revolutionizes the glasses industry by creating a near-universal prescription lens or if this technology is bound to the same fate as Google Glasses. The Apple Glass has the potential to be the next major step in wearable tech and several other patents filed by Apple suggest they have significantly invested in development around glasses (e.g., gaze monitoring technology, light modulation, self-cleaning lenses). However, as I said previously, Apple is notorious for rumours about new technologies and is constantly filing patents that may never emerge. Nonetheless, it appears they are at least exploring glasses as their next tech innovation.