Advancing augmented reality technology to accelerate mass adoption
Dave Velasquez is bullish on AR’s future, and even more so, Corning’s role in it. Here’s why.
For nearly a decade, Dave Velasquez, vice president and general manager, Corning® Gorilla® Glass, has led Corning’s Augmented Reality business.
Unlike virtual reality—which immerses a user in an imaginary environment—augmented reality (AR) enhances one’s real-world surroundings with real-time, computer-generated content applicable to the situation. Wearing AR glasses, users become “one” with new layers of text, graphics, or sound superimposed on their immediate environment.
After previously sharing some new worlds being revealed by AR, The Progress Report wanted to know more about the business of AR at Corning. In this Q&A interview, Dave gamely augments our understanding.
Why is Corning excited about augmented reality as a growth sector?
The opportunity set is enormous for us.
We’re looking at a future where smartphones evolve into sleek, affordable glasses, likely controlled by voice and/or gesture recognition. Everything we do today with our phones—and more—will potentially be a hands-free, eyes-up experience delivered by a wearable AR device. So, potential scale in the billions, that’s number one.
Number two: the amount of glass content in such AR devices will be 10 to 20 times of what’s in a modern smartphone. The revenue potential for Corning is substantially larger.
Now, the amount of innovation necessary to arrive at this promising future is also substantial—huge! But that’s the third reason why I’m bullish on AR for Corning.
How so? Sounds like a very steep climb.
That’s exactly where Corning excels. We thrive when the problems are really difficult. And getting the AR form factor and price point where it needs to be—while optimizing performance—is a tremendous challenge. One that multiple big players are spending billions to solve. Thanks to our deep technical bench, we’re right in there with them.
What’s the competitive advantage for Corning to help crack the codes here?
There are a lot of great glass companies. And a lot of strong materials science businesses. But only Corning offers that expertise plus an entire Advanced Optics division. Marry that with our unmatched investment in research, development, and engineering. Quite a compelling combination.
Our scientists know how to not only invent the material compositions needed here, but also the processes to make them at scale. We’re drawing from established core competencies with direct relevance to AR advancement via our work with semiconductors, Corning® Gorilla® Glass, advanced optics, and more. We have a proven track record of being able to stand up a supply chain in mobile consumer electronics devices, which is where AR is headed.
As one of our customers told me, “If not Corning, who the heck is going to do this?”
That said, we’re not naïve. The optics challenges alone are orders of magnitude harder than what’s on the market today. But we know they are solvable. We’re well positioned to hold hands with the big customers and help make it happen.
And you’re far from the starting line. Corning’s been serving the AR market for close to a decade now.
When we got into AR back in 2014, 2015, an Advanced Optics team went all-in with our customers. Truly understanding their requirements from both a technical perspective as well as the logistics of readying supply chains. The trusted relationships built back then continue to fuel our growth in the sector.
Today, our dedicated AR team is advancing Corning’s technological and engineering positioning to develop the products this market needs now and in the future.
Some people are already using AR without realizing it.
Sure. Any time you layer data on top of a visual, that’s augmented reality. Like the smartphone apps that let you see how new pieces of furniture might look in your living room before you buy, that’s AR.
But the transformative shift is in wearable AR devices. What are some great uses you’ve seen?
AR has opened new worlds for seamless collaboration and hands-on experiences to educate and train people on everything from brain surgery to military operations.
“Remote-assist” AR applications have been a game-changer for industry, including right here at Corning.
Rather than travelling to a faraway factory, engineers sitting in multiple other Corning locations can simultaneously assess situations through the “eyes” of an on-site, AR-device-wearing colleague and help guide them through equipment installations, inspections, or repairs. You can literally see the hand of someone in Mexico “reach into” a machine in Germany and point to a wire. Geographic limitations disappear as specialized knowledge gets shared. The time, money, and carbon footprint savings are enormous.
Beyond live interaction, any kind of YouTube-type tutorial can be encoded and layered into an AR glasses experience. It's already happening.
What is Corning currently offering to AR manufacturers?
We provide a special type of glass for the eyepieces, also known as waveguides. It’s an ultra-flat, high-refractive index glass we sell in wafer format.
See, for images and information to be added into your field of vision while wearing AR glasses, light waves must be guided through multiple layers of optical gratings, polymers, and coatings within that eyepiece glass, converting them to something your brain can perceive. Any imperfection in the glass, at even the angstrom level—one ten millionth of a millimeter—can change the path those photons of light travel. Controlling all that requires an unbelievable amount of precision. Corning’s product delivers it.
We also manufacture and sell some of the equipment used in the production of this glass, like laser singulation tools for cutting it and metrology tools which measure the wafers, ensuring they meet quality specs for characteristics like flatness.
Beyond that, we’re deploying our expertise in, among other things, fast-focusing lenses and sensors enabled by wafer-level optics to advance AR with our customers.
The biggest opportunity, volume-wise, will come via mass AR-wearable adoption in that post-smartphone world you described, right?
Yes. I can’t tell you exactly when it will happen. But the timeframe analogy with smartphones is appropriate. Industry and tech zealots used brick cell phones in the 1980s. Mass adoption started in the 90s. And then the iPhone flipped the switch in 2007.
A similar trajectory is playing out for AR wearables. We’re about three years into AR’s useful-but-bulky-and-expensive era. But a new day is dawning.
Sounds like you’re looking forward to it.
Absolutely. Any moment where information or imagery makes an experience better, or makes you feel smarter or safer, or plays to humans’ seemingly endless thirst to be enlightened and entertained, that’s a moment where augmented reality can make our lives better.