VR Prototypes Reveal Surprisingly Important Directions for Facebook Research

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Some time ago, Tested posted a hands-on video with virtual reality (VR) headset prototypes from Meta (i.e. Facebook), and there are some really interesting bits in there. The video itself is over an hour long, but if you’re primarily interested in the technical aspects and why they’re important to VR, read on because we’ll highlight each of the highlights of the study.

As absurd as it may seem to many of us to have a social network spearheading meaningful VR development, it’s not to say they don’t take it seriously. It’s also nice to see each of the prototypes being demonstrated by a researcher who is visibly excited to talk about his work. The big dream is to understand what it takes to pass the “Visual Turing Test,” which means delivering visuals that match physical reality. Some of these critical elements may come as a surprise because they go beyond resolution and field of view.

Demonstration of a solid-state varifocal lens with 32 discrete focal stops.

At 9:35 on video, [Douglas Lanman] shows [Norman Chan] how important variable focus is to provide a good visual experience followed by a look at all the different prototypes they used to make it. Currently, VR headsets only display visuals in one focal plane, but this means, among other things, that when a virtual object approaches the eyes, it becomes blurry. (By the way, older people don’t find this part very odd because it’s a common side effect of aging.)

The solution is to change the focus depending on where the user is looking and [Douglas] showcases all the different ways this has been explored, from motors and actuators that mechanically change the focal length of a display, to a solid-state solution consisting of stacked elements that can selectively converge or diverge light depending on its polarization. [Doug]his pride and excitement are palpable, and he really goes into every detail.

At the 30:21 mark, [Yang Zhao] explains the importance of higher resolution displays and talks about lenses and optics. Interestingly, the ultra-sharp text rendering made possible by the high-resolution display isn’t something that was ultimately captured. [Norman]attention the most. When high resolution was combined with variable focus, the textures on the pillows, the brightness of the wall art, and the patterns on the walls [Norman] found that he just couldn’t stop exploring.

Coming up at 39:40 something really interesting, demonstrated [Phillip Guan]. A VR headset must apply software-based distortion corrections, and it turns out these corrections can be tricky. Not only is the image distorted as it passes through the lens, but this distortion changes in nature, depending on where the eye is looking. This all needs to be corrected in software for high fidelity, but the real bottleneck is the need to wait for a physical prototype to be built, and what makes this more difficult is that different people will have slightly different subjective perceptions of distortion. To solve this problem, [Phillip] demonstrates a device that aims to accurately simulate various physical headset designs (including different lenses and users) in software, allowing various designs to be explored without having to build anything.

The final prototype, named Starburst for reasons that will soon become clear, is on display at 44:30 and demonstrates the power of truly high dynamic range. This is the most bulky look, but this is mainly due to the fact that car headlights are used as backlight. The goal is not to blind users, but to convey something important and missing. Why is high brightness so important? The answer is simple: Light levels in the real world far exceed anything a modern monitor (or VR headset) can provide. This means that in VR the spotlight really only looks like painting searchlights. It will never look real bright, not the way your eyes and brain perceive the word. When headsets can deliver a true HDR experience, that will change, and that’s what this prototype delivers.

It is clear that this direction is taken very seriously, and it may come as a surprise to learn that providing a compelling visual experience goes far beyond higher resolution and wider field of view. All the really good ideas for virtual reality may have been invented way back in the 1960s, but this video is a great demonstration of what goes into the painstaking science of figuring out how to solve a problem.

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