Corporate research and development departments are usually in strict lockdown. Even employees have to hand in their camera-equipped smartphones when they enter there. Because what happens in the laboratories should remain hidden from the competition. The public only finds out what engineers and developers are really working on when the finished products are presented.
The insight that the Facebook group Meta has now granted journalists is all the more astonishing – during a virtual visit. For the first time, the engineers, together with Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg, presented a whole series of prototypes of virtual reality glasses and revealed the technology they contain.
It’s no secret that Meta is working on VR glasses. The group bought the manufacturer Oculus years ago and is currently on the market with the VR glasses Meta Quest 2, which, according to the market researcher IDC, has sold almost 15 million units to date. Meta itself does not give any numbers.
But the group has long been working on the successor to the Quest 2. Cambria, VR glasses that are aimed more at professional users, is scheduled to be launched this year. Zuckerberg has now confirmed that there will be two model lines of VR glasses in the future.
So Cambria will not replace the quest either. Unlike the Quest, Cambria will have a more compact design, improved display, and new sensors that allow natural eye contact between avatars and facial expressions to be transferred to virtual reality.
But Meta’s ambitions go much further. According to Zuckerberg, the “visual Turing test” is the vision and thus the goal that drives the engineers and developers. The Turing test goes back to the British mathematician Alan Turing. It is passed when a person – for example when chatting – can no longer distinguish a computer from a real person.
This is exactly what Meta now wants to achieve in virtual reality. During a visit to the virtual laboratory last week, Metas Reality Labs research director Michael Abrash made it clear that the goal has not yet been reached: “However, we are still a long way from the level that people really ask themselves whether what they see is real or virtual.” No VR technology is currently able to pass the test. But the way there is now foreseeable, says Mata.
“It won’t be long before we’re able to depict scenes that are almost deceptively real,” said Meta boss Zuckerberg. “Instead of just looking at these scenes on a screen, we will have the feeling that we are there.” This enables people to have experiences that they would otherwise never have. It is precisely this feeling of a comprehensive, diverse experience that is why realism is so important.
Previous VR glasses fail for several reasons. Above all, their displays do not show the images sharply enough. VR experts speak of a fly screen effect. Although the displays have a high resolution, since the eyes are in close proximity to them and are only looking at a small area, they can see individual pixels.
Since the field of view of the glasses is large, you would need a much higher resolution than is currently possible. Research chief Abrash speaks of a sharpness that is 2.5 times higher than with the current Quest 2 glasses. Meta has already built a prototype called Butterscotch, but only with half the field of view that you need for VR glasses.
“We expect display panel technology to improve from generation to generation,” says Zuckerberg. “In the next few years we will probably also reach the required level.”
But there are other problems. One of them is the depth of field, which a normal display cannot provide, but which is necessary for a real representation. When we look at a screen, our eyes focus on that exact distance. In virtual reality, however, the user should be able to focus at different distances as in real reality, for example on their own hand 50 centimeters away and on a tree 50 meters away.
Meta has implemented this possibility in its prototypes called “Half Dome”, in which the glasses recognize where the eyes are looking. This is called eye tracking. In an early version, the lenses then moved dynamically.
The group calls the technology used Varifocal. The developers are now using electronic varifocal lenses based on liquid crystal lenses, which no longer move mechanically and are therefore less susceptible to impacts, for example.
At the same time, the software has to compensate for distortions caused by the optics at high speed, constantly because the eyes are always looking somewhere else. This is already happening in the current VR glasses.
The algorithms for this are currently largely static. “As a result, they don’t work perfectly when you look around in a scene,” explains Zuckerberg. This makes the VR experience less realistic overall. Eye tracking can also help here.
The bulkiest VR glasses that Meta showed as a prototype are called Starburst. It is so heavy that you have to hold it in front of your face on the left and right – like binoculars. According to the group, it has one of the brightest HDR displays ever built.
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is also present in more modern televisions. There, the displays achieve a brightness of up to 10,000 nits and also a higher contrast. Scenes appear more lively and realistic.
The heavy Starburst glasses even achieve a brightness of 20,000 nits, which of course consumes a lot of energy due to the bright lighting required. For comparison: The current Quest 2 comes to just 100 nits, an iPhone 13 Pro to a maximum of 1200 nits.
It may be years before Meta has solved all these problems and combined the technologies in one pair of VR glasses. The group now seems to have made a leap in terms of optics. This has resulted in the thinnest and lightest prototype VR glasses to date, dubbed the Holocake 2.
Instead of installing thick lenses that have to be a few centimeters from the display in order to focus properly, the light is passed through a lens’ hologram, which allows for a significantly flatter design. So the lens is only simulated. “It’s just a pretty cool trick,” Zuckerberg said.
However, LEDs are not suitable as a light source for this. Meta relies on lasers instead. “We have not yet succeeded in finding a suitable laser manufacturer, but if this proves to be feasible, it would only be a matter of time before VR displays in the style of sunglasses,” says research director Abrash.
Only when all these technologies come together should the engineers pass the visual Turing test. Meta showed what such glasses could look like with a design concept that bears the name Mirror Lake – and is not a working prototype.
But Zuckerberg sees himself on the way there: “If we can make enough progress in retina resolution, can develop appropriate systems for depth of focus and can reduce optical distortion and dramatically increase vibrancy, then we have a real opportunity to create displays that do justice to the beauty and complexity of the real world.”
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