Meta has been working on over a dozen VR headset prototypes, but doesn’t want you to use any of them. Ever. That’s because these bulky “time machines”, as they’re called, aren’t aimed at consumers, but are proof of concept only for their in-house designers.
During a virtual roundtable last week, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and members of Meta’s Reality Labs division demonstrated several of these prototypes. Many of them have their internal circuitry exposed, and some even look like you’re holding the entire contents of a desktop PC to your face – complete with extra-large fans and side handles to grip so your neck doesn’t snap under the weight.
The last one with the handles is a prototype called Starburst. Why so bulky? The Starburst contains a screen that can reach a brightness of up to 20,000 nits to improve its HDR capabilities massively over the Quest 2. A great TV can hit a few thousand at most and the Quest 2 can only hit around 100 nits.
High dynamic range (HDR) is the technology used by monitors to help bring out bright colors on the screen while keeping dark objects in the same image sharp. Without HDR, your image may look washed out; as if the contrast had been reduced too much.
HDR is apparently the technology most commonly associated with enhanced realism in VR. Unfortunately, Starburst is totally impractical as a real VR headset for everyday people to use. But as with all other prototypes, Zuckerberg explained that the goal is for these headphones to “help us identify which technical paths will allow us to make significant enough improvements that we can start moving closer to visual realism.”
By taking different aspects of their headphones to the extreme, Meta can figure out where the most gains can be made while also keeping their headphones usable. If there’s an aspect – like HDR – that can have a huge impact but isn’t practical to implement with current technology, Meta can use these prototypes to determine which areas deserve more R&D resources.
So while we’ll never see Starburst in action for ourselves, we can find echoes of its technology in the headphones Meta launches – like its upcoming Project Cambria headset and the so-called Meta Quest 3 (a follow-up to the hugely popular Quest 2 ).
Alongside Starburst, Meta also revealed several other prototypes.
Butterscotch reduces the Quest 2’s headphone field of view – halving it – but delivers two and a half times the resolution. This near-retina quality screen makes reading text in VR much easier and Zuckerberg explains that Butterskoth offers 55ppd.
Meta has previously stated that 60 pixels per degree (ppd) is what it is striving to achieve. This is the mark where our eyes start to stop noticing improvements in visual fidelity, but currently, Quest 2 can only go up to 21ppd. Apple is also looking to improve on this aspect of its own long-running headphones, with high-end displays seemingly a priority for the Californian tech giant.
Then there’s the Half Dome series of VR headset prototypes. Starting with Half Dome Zero in 2017, the fourth generation Half Dome 3 is lighter and more comfortable and has replaced the mechanical parts of Half Dome 2 with electronically controlled liquid crystal lenses.
Using eye tracking, Half Dome headphones are designed to mimic real-world vision. If you’re looking at something far in the virtual distance, it will be brought into focus while your foreground blurs, or vice versa if you want to look at something you’re holding.
According to Meta, this feature helped participants to delve deeper into their VR environments and made it a much more comfortable experience.
Last but not least was the Holocake 2, the only headset prototype Meta discussed that wasn’t a real object. This sleek design could be mistaken for a pair of slim ski goggles and is based on a 2020 model that used holographic optics.
As seen in the GIF above, the conventional approach on the left requires a fair amount of space and a thick curved refractive lens. Meanwhile, the holographic optics method on the right can use much thinner, flatter lenses and panels that can be compressed much more. The end result would be the Holocake 2, a super light and small headset.
Meta is still some time away from making this a reality. As Mark Zuckerberg explained, “We’re going to have to do a lot of engineering to get a viable consumer laser that meets our specifications; that is safe, low-cost and efficient, and that can fit into a thin VR headset.”
Security concerns come from Meta using a laser instead of something like a standard OLED display. Lasers and eyes don’t mix, and we imagine Meta doesn’t want there to be any chance that one of their VR headsets – prototype or not – will blind the wearer.
With Project Cambria still slated to release this year, we hope it won’t be long before we see some of these prototype efforts on display in one way or another. Based on what we’ve already shown, we can’t wait to see what Meta brings to the VR space next.
(through On the edge (opens in new tab))