Introduction Julie Basque, Head of Global Marketing & Branding chatted with Antti Sunnari CEO & Co-founder at a recent industry conference to discuss Dispelix Oy.
Julie: Antti, thanks so much for spending time with us today. I really appreciate it. We’ve been very busy here at Dispelix and I am so proud to be a part of this organization. It all starts with great leadership and great people and when coupled with ground-breaking technology, it’s a win-win. Can you give us an overview of how it all started?
Antti: Thank you, Julie, So, how did it all start? Well, I was a research scientist in VTT Technical Research Center of Finland with my Dispelix co-founder, Juuso Olkkonen. Together we figured out how to cancel out the rainbow effect from the diffractive gradings. After some intense research and development we were able to leverage our findings for see-through displays or what is now referred to as waveguides. As you know, a waveguide is a mostly clear, thin piece of glass or plastic inside AR glasses that (almost) magically helps bend and combine light into your eye. This added light represents the virtual 3D objects you're meant to see on top of the real world.
We continued to build on what we created and realized that this would be one of the next big things in computing. In 2016 we raised a round of funding and separated from VTT to start Dispelix.
Julie: When I hear Juuso's side of the story too, he'll say, "I couldn't believe it when it first happened, we actually eliminated the rainbow."
Antti: Yeah. It was funny because it was partly accidental when we first discovered it. I remember saying, "Hey, Juuso. I have this sample and I don't have a transmissive diffraction, but I still have the reflection." And Juuso was like, "No, not possible.” I said, "Well, it is possible. I will send you a sample." And a few days later he called me and said, "Antti, what the heck did you do? And that was the…
Julie: The start of Dispelix.
Antti: Yeah. We had to reverse our own first samples to get that model working, luckily, Juuso had already made software and scripts for nanostructures and photons for VTT when he was at the University of Arizona.
Julie: What is the basis of the scripts that Juuso developed?
Antti: Juuso's model starts by leveraging the basics of photonics. He developed the software from the first script to a working model. This is really his technology that we’ve applied to our waveguides.
Julie: So Dispelix is born and what happens next?
Antti: It was clear to us that we had some very cool and very new. We asked ourselves about what was next. Should we publish our findings, but we chose to keep working on it. There was no grand plan but we made prototypes to show potential customers and the feedback was great. We realized we had something and asked if it should be licensed or if we had a startup.
Julie: So what happened next?
Antti: We spent time in Silicon Valley, in Europe, and in Finland. And everyone came back saying that it still needs development.
Julie: Were you discouraged?
Antti: No, I agreed. Then we said let's go forward. But we didn’t know how to start a company or how to get the funding? I'm a research scientist.
Julie: Right? That's a completely different world than what you are used to.
Antti: I didn't know the startup space at all. Could it be possible? We met Jyrki Saarinen – he was our chairman, now a board member – and asked him "Hey, could you help with this?” Jyrki had a lot of experience with the heptagon.
Julie: How was he able to help?
Antti: With his connections, with his help, we made business plans, set the strategy, discussed where this could go and what we needed, and then we started raising funds. We started around summer 2015 approaching investors, with serious discussions in November. We closed in April. So it was quite fast in that sense.
Julie: Quite fast.
Antti: And with deep tech that was yet to be applied to a product in real life.
Julie: Which is so great. And it's been busy ever since.
Antti: Yeah. It was really, we signed on the investors, they're now shareholders of Dispelix. We now have money. The same day we rented office space. Which was a total wreck. It was from the '80s and everything. We made a fast plan, this is the flooring, this is the floor plan. We actually hired two first employees on the same day. We were floored because it was really happening.
Julie: It's official and real.
Antti: It's official. Yeah. It's real. Yeah.
Julie: I just got back from Mobile World Congress and some of the key takeaways, when I was there talking about Dispelix, was the image quality is just really remarkable. And then sometimes people weren't aware of the single layer and then they put the connection together like, oh, maybe a single layer helps with image quality. And can you tell us a little bit more about that? Is that your feeling as well?
Antti: But we didn't realize that more importantly was that it was a single layer for color working. It was obvious, well, I didn't, I'm a chemist, but for use, I thought, hey, why do you make a multilayer? You can just make it in one layer. We didn't know that that was even a bigger thing than canceling out the Rainbow.
Julie: Yeah. I think people definitely see the power in single layer.
Antti: Well, it's really about understanding manufacturing and the cost associated. When you look at the glass, the CapEx investment, the yields, etc.; the best solution is to focus on a single layer.
Julie: Absolutely. Then the image quality is achieved with the single layer and there are manufacturing and cost benefits as well.
Antti: Correct, there is not a compromise on image quality. Of course, in the designing of the structures it would be simple to use three layers. So it's really computational heavy, it needs good software. Also the manufacturing tolerances are tight to keep everything.
Julie: Sure, that makes sense. I have to ask, has the pandemic affected Dispelix at all or slowed you down?
Antti: Well, I have to say, not too much.
Julie: That's great.
Antti: As to say, AR is still coming. It's still in our customers who are making the actual glasses. It's still on the R & D and moving in the volumes, but it's still not launched. So the pandemic demonstrated that AR is needed.
Julie: Couldn't agree more.
Antti: Yeah. It's sped up the development with our customers and clients.
Julie: I can see that now more than ever people are recognizing the need for AR.
Antti: Many of us have been at home working remotely and just looking at a computer screen. Wearing the screen would be so much nicer.
Julie: So much nicer. I think people took advantage of having summer vacation homes and saying, okay, well, I can work from anywhere. I guess I'll take all my equipment, but it would be so nice to just leverage AR.
Antti: And the pandemic, it's hard to onboard people. If you're in maintenance or whatever you are doing, it's hard. But if you would have these glasses on, you could show them in real life what they are seeing. You can point out things like, "Hey, you should be checking on that or doing this."
Julie: Right. Several use cases. People, especially in the enterprise are recognizing the need to be able to remote in or somehow assist their employees. They could definitely use this technology. What's interesting when I look at Dispelix from last year to this year, there's been a lot of focus on the wearable itself. Everybody's used to seeing AR from 18 months ago with this big clunky pair of glasses, and who wants to wear that?
We know that there's a lot of different providers looking to use our waveguides specifically and to make a desirable wearable. I know this is an example of our laser beam scanning solution. So it's a lot better. I think you can see. I don't know if I can show this very well, but it's much more similar to a normal pair of glasses, similar to mine. But tell me a little bit more about laser and what the customers are asking for on the laser or LBS side of things.
Antti: It's funny how the industry evolved compared to when we started, everything was about the field of view, how large is the image, the resolution, all of these things. It pointed out that it was more towards using large devices. But as the market gets closer to launch and they’ve actually planned out the device itself, if you have a large field of you, you have a large projector and it will become a big device for sure.
Julie: Sure. Right. That makes sense. That's where we're at.
Antti: That's the current status. But you can take another approach. Let's say that the best example is North Focals, which was acquired by Google. They had really good-looking glasses, like really good-looking glasses. The field of view was small. The use cases were like infographics, that kind of thing. But that was the appealing form factor. What we can see now, the development is that the form factor is really key to consumers.
I spent, I don't know, €300 on these glasses with plastic lenses, metal frames, costs like €5 to manufacture or something. But still because of the form factor, I paid €300.
Antti: I wear it. And that's why. We were also thinking that if you're going to address the consumer market, the waveguide should enable a really good form factor.
Antti: Let's compromise the field of view a bit and make it a 30 degrees, 25 degrees field of view. But let's focus on the form factor, what the waveguide can enable, thinking the big part of the form factor is the projector itself. The original image source. The smallest one currently, frankly, is a laser.
Julie: Very interesting.
Antti: But there is an issue with the laser and waveguides and how to make them work. There is interference and all the artifacts and a lot of things. So we spent a couple of years developing the technology that enables a scanning laser projector. The result is that we can now offer a solution that is very sleek and good-looking for consumers. Now we know that this is not like full-blown AR, it's not like with all the tracking of the world and everything. But still, you can see things blending in the real world. You can have notifications, guidance, navigation.
Julie: Okay. So real-world use cases and you get to wear a normal wearable. One that consumers will adopt, but there's some give and take, it sounds like, right?
Antti: Yeah. It's the maturity of the technology.
Julie: In the beginning stages, it sounds like you can achieve quite a bit.
Antti: Yeah. So imagine that the best, how to say, the laser beam scanner or the smaller field of view allows for very good-looking glasses and you basically replace the smartwatch. But you can still have all the sensors that are in the smartwatch because you have the connection here, to your skin.
Julie: Oh, right.
Antti: You can still add sensors to read your heartbeat. You can still do all those things that you can do in the smartwatch.
Julie: That's pretty powerful.
Antti: And then you have a connection to your mobile phone. And all the apps you have.
Julie: All inclusive.
Antti: On everything, you can see it directly.
Julie: I think that's pretty powerful. I know we're a part of the LaSAR Alliance and a founding member aligned with a number of large organizations that are really betting on laser. I see a lot of movement there and it's exciting, but this explanation makes sense to me, and I'm sure to people viewing or reading this interview.
So tell me, in your opinion, I know you're so busy with a number of customers, and I know there's things you can probably not share with us. But you obviously are close to what customers are really demanding right now. Can you give us maybe just a high level of that?
Antti: Yeah. Must haves. So first of all, those companies, they're not planning to do a thousand units, or a hundred thousand units. They plan to make 10 million, 50 million units. So then the price is really important. It's very sensitive because it's a consumer product. And being a single layer technology is really important.
Julie: That makes sense.
Antti: Another thing is the weight. What is the weight of the device? Because you are wearing it. We all hate when we get the weight on the nose.
Antti: Yeah. You want to get all the weight away from the nose. As for the laser, for example, the waveguide is only 0.3 millimeter in thickness. It's like three grams, so nothing in that sense. That's really important. Then the image quality, it's really demanding, I have to say. We are so used to it. For example, on a Mac screen, the image is wonderful. I have LG TV, 4K, all LED TV, the image quality is so good. That is setting the expectation, and that's really a challenge in the waveguides.
Julie: What are you doing to address those issues
Antti: Where we have a dispersion of light and then recombining that, that one is really a challenge. Power usage is also something to address. How much power is needed to illuminate? Laser is the one good solution to that. It saves you power because you only illuminate the pixels that you need. And that saves the energy, which translates directly to battery lifetime.
Julie: So that's a plus, another plus for adopting laser.
Antti: Yeah. And the form factor. It's not a clunky device.
Julie: Right. I hear that all the time.
Antti: The waveguide needs to enable a really good form factor.
Julie: Yeah. And I think we can achieve that with Dispelix 100%.
Antti: Yeah. That's not the problem for us.
Julie: So those are the top things you hear. Well, it's interesting, I don't think a lot of people once they dive into really understanding it, they understand single layer and they understand the cost-effectiveness with it. But I think we've also thought of steps in the beginning when we're building it out from prototype to getting it to full manufacturing, that also makes it a very smooth transition, makes it scalable, makes it cost-effective, and ultimately makes our manufacturing partners really want to work with us. Can you tell us a little bit more on the manufacturing side?
Antti: Well, I can say that when we founded the company we decided that we will focus on three things. First of all, the design software, how to design the waveguide and simulate it. That was the one key part. Then we decided that we need to make prototypes by ourselves. We acquired access to these government-supported clean rooms.
Antti: And we started to hire people who can actually use those tools. Then thirdly, we decided that we will outsource manufacturing. Our plan was to focus on perfecting the technology. However, we knew we needed people who understand how this should be manufactured. So we decided to build a team to help guide the manufacturing.
Julie: Right. Which I think is so critical.
Antti: Yeah. We wanted to bring people in who have already been through this process.
Julie: Right. Pioneers in the industry that really know what they're doing.
Antti: Yeah. So they know what they're doing. And of course, quality control plays a critical role in that. We needed to develop the measurement tools and manufacturing process. Then we collaborate with these larger organizations. You could say like a Foundry. But there isn't actually a Foundry for photonics yet. You can say that's a Foundry. So we are guiding them that this is the process. You manufacture a waveguide. These are the tolerances you have to be in, you need to measure it. You need to measure the axle and the image quality. Not like the nanostructures. But you have to measure the output.
Julie: Yeah. That's critical. Those three things are huge. It makes sense that we'd be very involved in that process, but it's more than that. The expertise that Dispelix provides in those pieces is what is being really well received in the market today. People are understanding the value and the direction that's driving development, which is driving us to really make groundbreaking technology all the way from software to prototype to manufacturing. I really think we've got it covered from ABC or A to Z really.
Antti: Yeah. It is. And everyone works under the same roof. So we have teams that work together on the design, prototyping, and manufacturing. If something is not working or there is an issue, we can solve it very fast because we know the design, we know what we did in a prototype. We know how it's done in the volumes. So we can work very fast.
Julie: Really fast.
Antti: We are solving for issues that have never come up before, because it's a new thing and there is no volume manufacturing of waveguides anywhere currently. We need to be the pioneers and set some very important standards as it relates to the entire process from design, prototyping, manufacturing, and working closely with customers to integrate into the final product.
Julie: Right. So Antti, tell me where you think AR is heading.
Antti: That's a good question. So when we look at these AR devices which can do a lot of things, like mapping the world, putting the virtual objects in the real world and tracking those, keep those in place and you can interact with those. It's basically a computer built on your head. It needs a lot of computing. It needs a lot of batteries. It needs a lot of things. So making that into this form factor, it's a huge challenge. How to get everything on that form factor and avoid building the computer on your head? One option is to connect to a mobile phone. Everyone is carrying a phone. So the phone can do the calculation and so forth. That's the easy way and existing way.
I think the next evolution will happen with 5G. Actually we can change from the mobile phone that the glasses are connected to and leverage 5G. All the calculations needed, everything happens in the cloud because it's so fast.
Julie: I love it.
Antti: That will be the one key enabler for AR. The fast 5G connection and computation done there. Then you can shrink down everything in the glasses, the batteries, and everything.
Julie: Makes sense.
Antti: That will be when we get consumer glasses with all the AR features included.
Julie: Leveraging 5G.
Julie: Wow. That's really great. Want to give us any updates on Dispelix and any new focuses?
Antti: Yeah. So to say that AR is something that we believe will grow to be a huge, hopefully one-day replacement for mobile phones, to be the one device that everyone wears. But that's still far away. It's not a sprint. We are in a marathon. It takes time. We are focusing on our customers to deliver what they're asking from us, answer their needs, and build the technology stack further and further, because even though we have great waveguides already, this is just the beginning.
Julie: Right. Just scratching the surface.
Antti: This is scratching the surface of where the photonics can go and the augmented reality and the waveguides, where it can go. So we are just in the beginning.
Julie: So exciting.
Julie: It really is. Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Antti: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
Julie: Appreciate it!