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Volkswagen Group invests in 3D-holography

Volkswagen acquires a stake in SeeReal Technologies. The Dresden-based company has developed a solution that allows projections to be displayed three-dimensionally – without the need for 3D glasses.

3D visualization without special glasses – the Dresden-based company SeeReal Technologies made this possible. But nobody could see it. There was a lack of investors for the required display technology. “It was a classic chicken-and-egg problem,” recalls Hagen Stolle, Managing Director of SeeReal Technologies, regarding the discussions with potential investors. “We can create a hologram with LCD.” – “Yeah, let’s see.” – “We can’t, because we don’t have the hardware yet.” And for that they needed the right partners.  

So Stolle and his colleagues bought monochrome displays, rebuilt them and used optical tricks to create real holograms. “This is already possible with standard LCD hardware,” says the physicist. “We can use it to produce real objects in the room.” The quality may not be the best yet, but the principle of innovation quickly becomes clear.

Transforming illusion into reality

On an August summer’s day, Stolle stands in a room at the company’s office in Dresden. Screens, computers and keyboards are intertwined on tables and others on cupboards. An inconspicuous room in which something remarkable is taking place. Pioneering work with understatement. The prototype is a converted display for the presentation of X-rays on a 20-inch screen. Stolle asks the guests to take a seat in front of it.

An infrared camera captures the viewer’s eyes. Depending on the position, the software calculates the holographic representation for the respective viewer’s position. If the viewer moves to the side, the software recalculates the hologram – unnoticed by the human eye. The depiction is single-colored, or multicolored, showing propeller planes, engines and spaceships. In principle, everything is possible, from simple symbols to complex objects, films or video games.

Projection of a genuine hologram: Simple in principle, with complicated technology

The holograms developed by SeeReal Technologies do not deceive the eyes. They actually show the objects three-dimensionally. This means that the object can be viewed from different angles and the eyes work as in everyday life, including the correct focus of the eye’s lenses. With the well-known stereoscopic 3D display (S3D), there are only two perspectives, displayed in flat 2D images. They are filtered by S3D glasses or optics in the displays. The brain combines the two two-dimensional images, which each serve the left and right eye, to form a spatial image. So, it’s not really 3D. 

The 3D effect familiar from cinema, however, provides many viewers with additional, rather unappealing side-effects: headaches, dizziness or nausea. And as soon as the glasses are removed, the 3D effect disappears. The same thing happens when the viewer closes an eye – because it’s not real. The technology out of Dresden is different.

Investment in the automobile of the future

Volkswagen has now acquired a minority stake in SeeReal Technologies. By acquiring a stake in this leading technology company, the Group secures access to groundbreaking augmented reality technology. With the new know-how in the field of future display technologies, driving a car can be made even safer and more comfortable.

The Wolfsburg-based company sees great potential in augmented reality technology for their cars. Future generations of head-up displays in vehicles should be able to “merge” three-dimensional representations with the environment and enable innovative display concepts both in depth and close to the driver. The dashboard, as we know it so far, could thus be eliminated in the future and vehicles could be operated via virtual switches and displays. All occupants would be able to see “touchable” three-dimensional displays for information or interaction.

Feeling of safety

The office room in which SeeReal Technologies transfers the innovation into the car is simple. It has the flair of a driving school room; a traffic situation serves as a backdrop. The driver views this backdrop from the perspective of the Volkswagen vehicle mock-up – called “Sitzkiste” – to convince themselves of the technology. Getting into the seating module simulator not only triggers enthusiasm in the test subject, but also a little anxiety. But this quickly gives way to a feeling of safety.

Hagen Stolle presents the SeeReal Technologies solution using a head-up display

The supporting displays and warnings are projected exactly into the driver’s field of vision. A green arrow on the horizon shows, embedded in the real environment, where to turn off. The driver is made aware of the danger with a red warning sign. The objects are all located at a natural distance from each other. Anyone who experiences this innovative technology suspects that it will also bring about change for other occupants – from free-floating control elements and hologram telephony to computer games projected into the room.

Holography at an affordable price

When asked how holography can be applied to a display in real time while remaining affordable, the developers first asked themselves another question: What can I actually see? “Our pupils are only a few millimeters in size,” says Stolle. “It’s enough if we generate the information that the viewer can see at any moment. Via the infrared camera, the display knows where the viewer’s eyes are. Software then calculates the holograms for the respective eye position in real time. This saves pixels, lighting and calculations. The patented eye tracking system, a fast and precise eye recognition and tracking device, is an essential element of SeeReal Technologies’ H3D technology. The observer doesn’t miss a thing and doesn’t notice the reduced data. This is ideal for use in vehicle interiors, which are designed according to sophisticated strategies: one camera would suffice. 

“We originally developed stereoscopic 3D displays,” says Stolle. A solution that also works without special glasses. “But after using them for half an hour, they felt it in their eyes.” In addition to that, not all depths can be conveyed in this way. And so, their development was out of the question for certain industries. “Imagine a surgeon working on an organ whose projection was created with an incorrect depth,” says Stolle. With a holographic display, on the other hand, the human eye receives complete visual information with unlimited depth – just like in reality.

Hagen Stolle is both Managing Director and Technical Director of SeeReal Technologies

SeeReal Technologies discontinued the production of stereoscopic 3D displays in 2006. Since then, the company has concentrated exclusively on the further development of its technology and the licensing of its patents. Its developments could be used in a wide variety of industries, including the automotive and medical sectors.

Paradigm shift in the automotive industry

For years, automobile manufacturers have relied on the development of new head-up displays that project virtual information into the driver’s field of vision. “We are experiencing a paradigm shift in the automotive industry. Software is becoming increasingly important. We want to use innovative display technologies to create exciting new user experiences,” says Jens Fehrling, who is concentrating on digital innovations in the vehicle at Volkswagen. And Volkswagen wants to set market standards. “SeeReal has an impressive technology and a broad patent portfolio.” 

“We have 110 patent families, which we have registered in various countries, and around 600 patents,” adds Stolle. Some of the patents are already more than ten-years-old. “With Volkswagen, we now have a strong partner at our side, which supports us very much,” he says. “As a development firm, we cannot implement our display technology on our own.”

And that’s why Stolle and his colleagues will soon be in China. They want to discuss the production of the displays. “We will explain to the manufacturers the specifications according to which they are to manufacture the displays – unique for us,” says Stolle. “With Volkswagen on board, we have a good position with the Asian manufacturers.” And then the chicken and egg problem will also have been cracked.

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