Facebook's smart glasses just found their AR lenses

Facebook has locked up an exclusive supply of smart glasses displays, inking a deal with a microLED specialist that could one day put digital lenses in wearable computers. The agreement with UK display-maker Plessey boxes out rivals like Apple, Google, and others from an augmented reality display-maker, a move that could be pivotal when AR wearables become market-ready in the coming years.

Plessey designs and manufacturers full-field emissive microLED displays, which promise both high pixel-density and high brightness. The small, low-power screens range from basic displays for showing simple head-up information on sports eyewear, through to Full HD, RGB screens that can replicate a smartphone interface as though it's floating in front of the wearer.

More specifically, Plessey relies on gallium nitride (GaN)-on-silicon (Si) production, rather than sapphire. That, the company says, allows for larger wafer sizes, which in turn paves the way for larger yields and more affordable displays. Unlike LCD, the microLED screens are emissive and require no backlighting: that makes for a smaller package overall, and lower power requirements.

Facebook, meanwhile, has been talking up the possibilities of augmented reality eyewear for some years now. The company – which owns Oculus and makes a range of virtual reality headsets – has previously talked about AR being the next big thing for social networks. However the practicalities of that have been trickier to pin down.

It seems like microLED is going to play a big part. Its agreement with Plessey will see the company dedicate its LED manufacturing operations "to helping Facebook prototype and develop new technologies for potential use in the AR/VR space."

Exactly when that might translate to a commercial product, of course, remains to be seen. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has previously said that smart glasses are a focus for the company and predicted that they'll arrive sometime this decade, but so far the limitations around power, connectivity, and display technology have meant it's not quite practical yet.

All the same, Facebook isn't the only company working on smart glasses. Apple is believed to be busily working away on iOS-powered digital eyewear, while Google and others are also known to be looking at the form-factor as a potential growth segment beyond smartphones. Part of succeeding there is getting the right combination of suppliers, something Facebook clearly understands.