According to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Starburst is “wildly impractical” in its current form. But for a company that wants to give its users virtual experiences that are almost indistinguishable from the real world, these huge VR binoculars are still an important development.
To really blur the line between the physical and the virtual – or to pass the “Turing visual test”, as some researchers say – Meta needs to overcome some serious obstacles. Future headphones need to be more elegant than we have now, and yet more capable. And the screens inside them need to be sharper, smarter and brighter than anything right now.
That’s why Starburst is built around a big lamp – it’s a prototype designed to deal with a big problem. And he is not alone.
“The purpose of all this work is to help us identify which technical pathways will allow us to make significant improvements so that we can begin to move closer to visual realism,” Zuckerberg told reporters during a presentation.
This credibility is a crucial part of his vision for the metaverse: an immersive “incarnate Internet” where consumers will feel as if they are living space instead of just watching it. But despite the wave of meta-universal advertising, Zuckerberg launched after laying realized this vision last yearMeta’s prototypes offer a tangible sense of how far the company has come from fulfilling that promise.
On the one hand, the company needs to figure out how to make everything we see through the headphones in more detail.
Think about your TV or computer monitor: the higher the resolution, the clearer and more realistic things look on them. But the small screens in current VR headphones can’t come close to this sharpness – they have too few pixels stretched out in too much space.
Another prototype, Butterscotch, fixes the problem. It is bigger than one would like to wear for a very long time and is “nowhere to be delivered”, according to Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Meta’s Reality Labs. However, the visual images it produces are detailed enough for the user to read the bottom line 20/20 of the virtual vision chart – not bad compared to the blurred spots that are visible via Meta Quest 2.
The trick? The researchers had to narrow their field of vision to about half of what you’ll see in Quest 2. That is, looking through Butterscotch shows you less than the virtual world in front of you – but what you can see seems very clear. It’s not a big compromise, but Abrash admits that it will be at least a few years before the right types of screens exist.
“Currently, there are no displays that support anything close to retinal resolution for the full field of view of VR headphones today,” he said.
Another prototype, called the Half Dome, was first created in 2017 and is now in its third revision. Inside this handset and the like, Reality Labs researchers have fine-tuned what they call “varifocal” lenses – those that move physically and automatically to help wearers’ eyes focus on virtual “objects.” in front of them.
If you wear traditional VR headphones, you will find that the focal length is set a few feet in front of you. Try to bring an object – say, a virtual handwritten letter – closer to your face and you may find that you can’t read it.
In such a situation, your real eyes focus well – the problem is that your view of the world is naturally a bit far-sighted. Therefore, variofocal lenses are like a pair of glasses with their own lives that move around to keep virtual objects in focus, no matter where they are.
Meta has been experimenting with these lenses for most of five years, the company says, and although it was once claimed they were almost “Ready for the best hour”, they haven’t appeared in any headphones you can buy right now. And for now, that seems unlikely to change.
“Even when you sometimes have a prototype that seems to work, it can actually take a while to put it into a product,” Zuckerberg said. – We are working on the issue.
One last prototype Meta showed reporters – called Holocake 2 – brought Zuckerberg’s point home.
Unlike other experimental headphones that Meta showed, the Holocake 2 is fully portable and functional – it can connect to a computer and run existing VR software without any problems. And because of the specific way researchers designed their optics, the Holocake is the thinnest and lightest VR headset the company claims to have made.
But even that doesn’t mean Holocake is ready to debut on store shelves soon. Unlike more conventional VR headphones, the Holocake 2 uses lasers as light sources instead of LEDs or LEDs. (You know, things in some of your light bulbs).
“To date, the jury is still not looking for a suitable laser source, but if this proves bearable, there will be a clear path to sunglasses-like VR displays,” Abrash said.
The fact that these prototypes exist is proof that these problems can be solved individually – if not always elegantly. The real problem, however, is building a handset that addresses all of these areas and manages to be comfortable and energy efficient at the same time. And researchers suspect that the end result may resemble a conceptual design called Mirror Lake.
Although it doesn’t exist as a working prototype (and probably won’t for a while), Mirror Lake packs many of these visual enhancements – plus a display that shows the eyes and face of the average user – into headphones that look like a pair of ski goggles.
Douglas Lanman, director of display systems research at Meta’s Reality Labs division, also called Mirror Lake the company’s first concept of “mixed reality,” referring to a wearable display designed to mix digital objects and environments in your view of the physical world. .
That would be “a change in the game for the visual experience of VR,” Abrash said. Now Meta just has to do it – or something.
Meanwhile, the company is facing other winds.
Meta’s revenue growth began to slow and Reuters announced last month that the Reality Labs department could not afford to pursue certain projects. Recruitment has also slowed at the company, although spokeswoman Elana Widman said Meta “has no plans to lay off at the moment”. And while the company was expected to release a pair of augmented reality glasses codenamed Project Nazare in 2024, those plans were it is said to have been scrapped in favor of turning them into a demo device.
“We value the key priorities throughout the company and put energy behind them, especially when it comes to our core business and Reality Labs,” Widmann said in an email.