March 29, 2023

This story is syndicated from the premium edition of PreSeed Now, a newsletter that digs into the product, market, and founder story of UK-founded startups so you can understand how they fit into what’s happening in the wider world and startup ecosystem.

Whether you believe it’s the future of everything, or just a useful tool that will be part of the mix of tech we regularly use a few years from now, augmented reality is a rapidly developing field with one major drawback – like VR, it can leave you feeling sick.

For example, US soldiers who tried Microsoft’s HoloLens goggles last year suffered “‘mission-affecting physical impairments’ including headaches, eyestrain and nausea,” Bloomberg reported.

While the technology could “bring net economic benefits of $1.5 trillion by 2030” according to PwC, this sickness is a massive inhibitor to the growth of AR and VR.

One startup looking to tackle the problem is Cambridge-based Lark Optics, which has developed a way of bypassing the issues that cause these problems.

“In the real world, we perceive depth by our eyes rotating and focusing. Two different cues need to work in harmony. However, in all existing AR glasses, these cues fundamentally mismatch,” explains Lark Optics CEO Pawan Shrestha.

Having to focus on a ‘virtual screen’ on augmented reality glasses, means users have to switch focus between the real world and the augmented one. This depth mismatch causes physical discomfort and conditions like nausea, dizziness, eyestrain, and headaches.

What Lark Optics does differently, Shrestha says, is it projects the augmented reality image onto the user’s retina. This means the AR is always in focus no matter what your eyes do to adjust to the real world around you.

So far the startup has developed a proof of concept and is now iterating to refine its demonstrator model. Shrestha says they conducted two successful user studies with their proof of concept; one in their own lab and another with an external partner he prefers not to name.

When the tech is ready, they want to use a fabless model for producing the components they design, which they will then sell to original equipment manufacturers who make AR headsets.

Given they’re addressing such a fundamental challenge to the mass adoption of AR, it’s unsurprising that other companies are tackling it in other ways (more on that below). But Shrestha says his startup’s approach is the most efficient in terms of processing power and battery power, and doesn’t affect the user’s field of vision.

Shrestha grew up in rural Nepal (“really rural… I was nearly nine years old before I saw electric lights”). He says his parents’ enthusiasm for his education eventually led him to New Zealand where he obtained a masters degree in Electronics Engineering from the University of Waikato.

Keen to develop technology he could commercialise, he says he developed an interferometer. While that venture didn’t work out, his work led him on to a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he spotted the commercial potential of a new approach to AR displays.

“It was scientifically challenging, but  it was also something that could touch the lives of many, many people,” he says.

Shrestha co-founded Lark Optics (which was previously known as AR-X Photonics) with his friend Xin Chang, and Daping Chu who previously oversaw the PhD work of Shrestha and Chang. The trio have been working together for around a decade but only got started with Lark Optics in earnest last year,

Shrestha says this week they have been joined by a new recruit, Andreas Georgiou, who previously worked at Microsoft as a principal researcher in the field of optical engineering.