ID Interviews David Fattal, Founder and CEO of LEIA, a Silicon Valley Startup That Is Developing an Interactive Holographic Display for Mobile Devices
David Fattal was the principal investigator of the LEIA project at HP Labs, from where he led a spin-off in late 2013 to co-found LEIA, Inc. Fattal spent his early career in the Quantum Photonics group at HP Labs, specializing in the manipulation of light at the nanoscale. He has a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University and a B.S. in mathematical physics from Ecole Polytechnique, France. In 2013, he was featured in the MIT Tech Review list of 35 Innovators under 35 and was also awarded the French Order of Merit for inventing the Multiview Backlight concept. He is the author of 80 granted patents.
Conducted by Jenny Donelan
ID: Can you tell us a little about LEIA? How did you get started? What’s the mission?
DF: LEIA, Inc., is a technology spinoff from HP Labs. Our research team had been working on optical interconnect for many years, an area of photonics concerned with the transmission and manipulation of information in optical-form inside computer chips. Using specially designed nano-photonic structures similar to diffraction gratings, we were routinely extracting light from planar “photonics” chips into directional light beams that would be coupled to optical fibers and transported to another chip. We enjoyed great success in controlling the precise parameters of light extraction using wavefront engineering techniques.
Today, these same types of nano-structures and wavefront engineering methods are powering LEIA’s core holographic-display technology. We became an independent company, based in Menlo Park, California, in early 2014. We have a clear mission to accelerate the time to market for smartphone display products. And beyond cell phones, we are also now looking at all kinds of form factors – from tablet to laptop to automotive. Our long-term goal is to become THE interface technology to the digital world, letting you visualize, manipulate, and touch 3D holographic content from any type of screen.
ID: How does LEIA’s holographic technology work?
DF: Today, LEIA’s products are based on a slight modification of an LCD. We use an off-the-shelf LCD frontplane and simply augment the backlighting unit with our nano-structures, resulting in a so-called diffractive light-field backlight (DLB). The result is a display that you can either operate in its original 2D mode – with no loss of brightness or resolution – or in a light-field “holographic” mode, where many different images can be projected into different regions of space, producing an effect of both depth and parallax for several viewers at a time.
ID: So what would it be like for me to use this technology?
DF: First and foremost, you have the option to operate the display in conventional 2D mode. In a smartphone context, this would be the normal mode of operation for the home screen, reading news and emails, or even for operation in a VR headset such as Gear VR or Google Daydream. But you would also have the option to launch a 3D app – HoloChat, for instance – where the display would transition smoothly to light-field mode and let you enjoy a conversation with a holographic image of a friend, seen directly on the device (no headset needed). This image would provide a sense of depth, parallax, and accurate rendering of textures. Skin looks like skin (without that “plastic” effect you get with a 2D display) and metal looks truly “shiny” due to the ability to create an angle-dependent treatment of light reflections.
As long as you stay within the prescribed field of view (anywhere between 30 and 90° depending on the version), the parallax movement is coherent. If you want to see completely around objects, we use tricks to detect the relative motion of the phone to the user’s face and are able to shift the field of view dynamically to accommodate extreme points of view (our so-called dynamic-FOV feature). Last but not least, our handsets will soon be equipped with a hover touch feature that will let users manipulate holographic content above the screen using finger motion. The resulting experience is quite magical.
ID: It sounds like it! What are some other likely applications?
DF: Gaming and 3D video streaming are obvious applications for which an ecosystem is already in place, and tons of content is readily available. But this is barely scratching the surface. We are big believers in “social 3D,” a suite of apps giving you the ability to scan your friends and yourself in 3D and use these avatars in messaging, videos, chat, social networks, etc. (See, for example, AltspaceVR at https://altvr.com.) Augmented reality is another big potential application, letting you introduce 3D digital content over the real world seen though the device.
ID: What recent breakthroughs have made this technology commercially viable today vs. yesterday?
DF: There is a combination of factors. First, nano-manufacturing methods have recently achieved an unprecedented level of maturity, which allow the mass-fabrication of our backlight parts. This is how we can reliably define structures with dimensions of a few hundred nanometers at very precise locations on the surface of the backlight and in a cost-effective way. Second, mobile chipsets are now powerful enough to handle 3D rendering at sufficient speed and decent power-consumption levels. And it’s only getting better with the push for VR.
Last but not least, the 3D ecosystem has grown tremendously from that of a few years ago. Most games today are based on 3D assets rendered for a 2D screen, and they are straightforward to re-compile for a LEIA screen. Shooting real content in 3D has become routine, and content developers are now looking forward to the next multiview media platform. It could be VR or it could be us – the good news is that the data formats are almost identical.
ID: Do you have plans to jump-start your business?
DF: We announced a partnership with the technology and media group Altice back in May to bring the first holographic smartphone to the European market by the end of 2017.
ID: What challenges/pitfalls do you expect to encounter?
DF: The main challenge at this point is to get enough content ready for the launch. We are well on our way there.
ID: From an entrepreneurial standpoint, what does it take for someone to start a business like this?
DF: To tell you the truth, you need to be extremely self-confident and slightly crazy. Not many new display technologies have been successful in the marketplace in recent years. However, you don’t stumble on a major innovation like that powering LEIA very often either. When starting LEIA, we made a big bet that leaving the corporate world to build a new venture from scratch was the right thing to do. Now that the technology is commercially ready with paying customers, this seems like a no-brainer, but at the time we (and our early investors) were taking a big risk.
ID: What lessons have you learned so far?
DF: Just keep your head down and keep grinding!
Readers can see LEIA’s technology first-hand, including smartphone demos, at Display Week 2017 in Los Angeles this May. •
Jenny Donelan is the Managing Editor of Information Display Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.