Virtual reality and augmented reality (also known as AR and VR) are no longer just for games or entertainment. Those technologies allow us to conduct virtual conferences, share presentations, and communicate in virtual spaces. But because of the high cost and bulkiness of VR and AR devices, the virtual world is not within easy reach.
Recently, a South Korean research team developed moldable nanomaterials and a printing technology using metamaterials, allowing the commercialization of inexpensive and thin VR and AR devices. The research findings, which solve the issues of device size and high production, were recently published in Nature Communications.
The solution uses Metamaterials, which are substances made from artificial atoms that do not exist in nature and freely control the properties of light. In order to make metamaterials, artificial atoms smaller than the wavelengths of light must be meticulously constructed and arranged. Until now, metamaterials have been produced through a method called electron beam lithography (or EBL). However, EBL has hindered the commercialization or production of sizable metamaterials due to its slow process speed and high cost of production.
To overcome these limitations, the research team developed a new nanomaterial-based on nanoparticle composite that can be molded freely while having optical characteristics suitable for fabricating metamaterials. The team also succeeded in developing a one-step printing technique that can shape the materials in a single-step process.
The team succeeded in producing an ultrathin metalens that is 100 times thinner than a human hair by using this newly developed technology. Metamaterials can be made into one-thousandth of the thickness of heavy glass or plastic lenses. This is the first time in the world such an ultrathin metalens was produced in a single-step printing process.
Consider economics. Using EBL, the cost of making a metalens with the performance of conventional glass lenses was $8,200 per unit. But now this new technology enables the production of about $8, which is 1 percent of the cost and 1/10,000 the thickness.
According to the researchers, ‘This one-step printing technology of nanomaterials allows the fabrication of metamaterials over 100 times faster than conventional electron beam lithography. These lenses can not only make the existing thick, large VR and AR lenses or glasses dramatically lighter and smaller but can also be applied to curved or flexible panels, which facilitates the use of metamaterials in large omnidirectional invisible cloaks or in curved or bendable wearable devices at a fraction of today’s cost.’