Wearables Are Leading the Way for a VR Resurgence
Kyle Maxey posted on July 14, 2015 |
What does the F-35 fighter have to do with wearable technology? More than you might think.
David Alan Smith has been in the business of engineering immersive experiences for a long time. Whether they are groundbreaking 2D first person shooters, or virtual reality (VR) simulations for famous directors, his creations have taken him on an amazing ride. But now, Smith’s up to something new, and what he and his company Wearality have up their sleeves might just change the way we see the world—literally.

Setting the Stage At Lockheed

Sometime around 2009, Smith received an interesting offer. After a long career creating cutting-edge software for the fledgling VR industry he was approached by Lockheed Martin and asked to develop a virtual simulation dome for the world’s most sophisticated product, the F-35 fighter.

At first, Smith was apprehensive about joining the Lockheed fold. “I’m a software guy,” Smith rebutted. “I’ve always been a software guy. Over at Lockheed they build hardware.”

Pondering the offer more, Smith soon realized that Lockheed’s offer might just be the opportunity he’d been looking for. As he recalled to me, throughout his career he’d been interested in what the future of human-computer interfaces would look like. Long conversations with fellow luminaries such as Alan Kay began to pour back into his mind, and David realized that this was a chance to make a seismic shift in the world of immersive VR. As he put it, “I knew it was time to build the real thing.”

During his tenure at Lockheed, Smith and his partner, Lockheed Martin Senior Fellow Rick Boggs, developed an impressive array of virtual world interfaces that would link seamlessly with wearable systems. While a number of products were made and tested under Smith’s watch, one stood out for its technological achievement—the optical component of the F-35 virtual simulator dome.

At first it might seem a trivial thing. When you’re dealing with systems as advanced and futuristic as the F-35 and VR, optics can seem a bit ho-hum. However, just like they were when the first telescope was invented (in fact, the first lenses were considered so important they were state secrets), optics play a critical role in both simulator design and virtual reality.

In the case of the F-35 virtual simulator dome, Smith, Boggs and their team were asked to engineer an optical device that could help change the way pilots perceive air combat. Rather than having to narrow their focus to the small aperture of older HUDs, the virtual dome would provide an immersive experience where pilots would learn to navigate a weapon system that extended human senses to superhuman ranges.

Building an optics system to do that is no small task.

After much research Smith and his team decided that their simulator dome would have to employ an enormous double convergent Fresnel lens. As Smith explained to me, “the double convergent Fresnel generates a fully collimated light field that gave the simulator a wide field of view where every region could be in crystal clear focus.”

Sitting only inches away from the arching simulator screen, pilots in training would have a massive field of view. With their third-generation helmets donned, the full complement of the F-35’s sensors would be at their disposal.  Zipping through test sorties, pilots were cutting their teeth on the world’s most advanced virtual and augmented reality products.

But while simulator domes have been proven effective, they’ve been expensive to build. To address that issue Smith and Lockheed Martin have developed a head wearable version of the large flight simulation domes – much smaller and of course far less expensive, called the LM Eyes.

Lockheed Martin believe that the LM Eyes will provide the same level of immersion and quality of flight training for the F-35 pilots in the near future. Will the LM Eye take over ever dominate the world of  F-35 flight prep? Only time can tell.

Needless to say, the simulator dome was a success.

Optics Give a Clear View for Consumer VR

Designing a system at Lockheed is one thing.  With the resources, the budget and an endless supply of talent, the sky (or more realistically, outer space) is the limit. But Smith wanted more. Before joining Lockheed his endeavors had been geared toward consumers. His new challenge was to transform his simulation project into a consumer tool.

But how would that happen?

Today’s consumers aren’t satisfied with products that are static and stationary. Cellphones and tablets have changed the way people think and interact with technology. Smith’s new product would have to adapt to that reality.

Then it dawned on Smith, his new optics allowed an immersive experience even with a screen sitting inches from a pilot’s face.

What if he could do that with a pair of glasses?

What if he could do that with a cellphone?

A new type of VR equipment was about to be born. Smith would call it Wearality.

Composed of a pair of glasses and a frame to hold a cellphone, Wearality is a portable, immersive VR system that provides the deepest immersive VR experience available to consumers.

But how did Smith transform his Lockheed project into a consumer tool? “Iteration,” Smith reported. “Iteration is the key to design.”

According to Smith, when his team was building optics for Lockheed a number of expensive processes  were used that would only lead to greater cost and negligible improvement. Expensive processes like diamond turning were cast aside in favor of 3D printing.

But at first, things didn’t go according to plan.

Smith admitted that his first few attempts at translating his Fresnel dome into lenses were awful; but they’d see progress soon.

Aside from his ingenuity, and a bit of trial and error, Smith quickly improved his lenses thanks to Autodesk’s Fusion 360 software. Of all of the features that Smith appreciated in 360, it was the software’s ability to give the Wearality team tight control over their model’s geometry that stood out the most. With its precise parametric controls, Wearality prototypes gave Smith and his team excellent insight into improvements that needed to be made iteration to iteration.

But building prototypes with Fusion 360 wasn’t the only benefit the software lent his team. According to Smith, the models that he was able to build in 360 were so accurate that laser cut prototypes were coming directly off the machine ready to be snapped into frames.Soon, Wearality lenses were being pumped out of an injection mold and Smith’s team had done what seemed impossible only 12 months before—Wearality had become a product. What’s more, Smith had taken an optical system that once cost tens of thousands of dollars, and turn it into a $70 item.

At the end of the day Smith sees Wearality as a platform that can be used to play games, watch movies, take real estate tours, assess CAD work and even interact with novel virtual displays. But like any transformative technology it’s hard to tell exactly how it’ll catch on. As Smith put it, “Just ‘cause we built the system, doesn’t mean we know how it’ll be used. Sometime in the near future I imagine some 17-year old will build a killer app, and VR will explode.”

Given its flexibility, affordability, sophisticated design and the unparalleled depth of its immersive experience, it’s likely that app will be the first of many used on the Wearality platform.


Autodesk has paid a fee to ENGINEERING.com to promote their product development tools. They have had no editorial input to this story. All opinions are mine – Kyle Maxey.

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