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How do nanotechnology, virtual reality and augmented reality mix?

Nanotechnology plays an integral role in virtual reality tech's hardware, communications and power. IEEE member Saumya Sharma outlines how the two intersect to create a more immersive end-user experience.

There are many intersections of nanotechnology with virtual reality technologies. Nanotech involves using devices that are miniaturized and small enough to be called nanoscale, which is around .1 to 100 nanometers, with a nanometer measuring at one-billionth of a meter.

When it comes to applications of nanotechnology in virtual reality, one use case is creating long-lasting battery life for virtual and other reality -- augmented reality or mixed reality -- technologies without needing to constantly recharge them. The awareness of materials at a nanoscale level provides the ability to better optimize battery life as well as the size of the battery itself.

On the display side, nanotechnology helps make virtual and augmented reality experiences more realistic and immersive. Nanotechnology innovation can help manufacturers achieve higher resolution and viewing angles. Viewing angles, lighting conditions and resolution are extremely tricky to manipulate within the small screen sizes that are used in virtual and augmented reality devices. The optics that make the experience more immersive for users are very technologically demanding, especially due to the large area which is the playing field for sensor input when using, for example, an augmented reality headset. Nanotechnology can help create better resolution in display technology as the data transfer protocols virtual reality requires, such as 5G, are dependent on advances in nanotechnology.

Speaking of sensors, this is one area nanotechnology can play the most integral role in making the technology possible. Nanosize sensors for augmented, virtual and mixed reality systems include location sensors, visual sensing, sound, vibration detection, gyroscopes, inertial measurement units, accelerometers and other types of environmental sensing. Although a lot of these sensors are already prevalent today, there is still plenty of scope in terms of using them on a nanoscale for integration and to process all of the information received from sensors within an augmented or virtual reality system.

Nanotechnology also plays a role in enhancing communication capabilities. In order to create seamless, responsive communication between different elements of virtual reality, nanotechnology can bridge gaps between processors and input environments. Simply put, augmented and virtual reality require human interaction with sensors. These sensors first interpret gestures using motion tracking or computer vision, and then translate the gestures into commands for the processors within the reality systems. As a response to these commands, we might be able to see something in our headsets that is corresponding to the gesture. It's like making a thumbs-up hand gesture to select which video we would like to play on our augmented reality headset. The processor is responding to the input environment where the input is provided by the human.

The ultimate problem with virtual reality falls within the packing options for sensors, display units, batteries and processors. When making a portable, intelligent device, the biggest challenge is to package it together in a way that is not bulky. Advances in nanotechnology are constantly shrinking the size of hardware and ensuring they remain undamaged with daily use. A virtual reality product's hardware must be strong and sturdy -- just think of how many times you've dropped your TV remote at home and it hasn't fallen apart.

In the end, augmented and virtual reality are only possible thanks to the nanoscale sensors available today.

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This was last published in May 2019

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Where do you see the future of nanotechnology in virtual reality headed?
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You should rename your article replacing "nanotechnology" with "MEMs" (micro electro mechanical systems) technology as the sensors that enable the applications are being producing using MEMs and not (and will not be for the very long foreseeable future) "nanotechnology."  Every IoT, IoMT, etc. system includes at least one or more MEMs sensors especially inertial (accelerometers, gyros).  The tech community needs to highlight this fact a lot more than it actually does.  For example, companies that are largely doing software talk abou the "IoT sensor" they developed -- the software will increasingly become a commodity and performance will largely have to do with the accuracy of the MEMs sensors being used.  For a lot of the new applications being developed, consumer grade MEMs sensors (what is in your smart phone) will not be good enough.  When your IoMT system needs to be tracked and you must know its exact location, using low grade inertial MEMs will not provide you with the information you need, when you need it no matter how good your software is.  It will not overcome your GPS being blocked or spoofed either.  For VR/AR head tracking and assured PNT....again, a much more accurate inertial sensor is needed.   You are not going to have in the next few life times "nanoscale" inertial sensors...especially if they are required to provide much higher accuracy which will be absolutely necessary for all of the applications mentioned in the article.  Focus on what is actually being used-- MEMs.  
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