Lighter, Smaller Headsets Could Make VR More Immersive

Full-body tracking is getting better, too

  • Your next VR headset could be a lot more comfortable and immersive, thanks to recent scientific advances. 
  • Researchers have come up with a new way to make VR glasses that are compact and easy to wear.
  • One area that could make VR a lot more realistic is the ability to track your whole body, instead of just head and hand movements. 
Person using a smaller prototype of VR glasses

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Virtual reality headsets will soon get smaller, lighter and more powerful, thanks to recent technological advances, experts predict. 

University of Rochester researchers have come up with a new way to make VR glasses that are compact and easy to wear. The glasses are made by imprinting freeform optics with a nanophotonic optical element called “a metaform.” Innovations like this one could soon make VR gear more immersive.  

“Today, device makers have to make tradeoffs between immersion and portability because a device with a high-quality display and a high refresh rate will likely consume more computing power,” Thomas Amilien, the CEO of virtual reality company Clay AIR, said in an email interview.  “A device with a smaller resolution display and lower camera rate will, on the other hand, be more practical, lighter, and battery-efficient.”

Getting More Realistic

Scientists at the University of Rochester are working on a new optical component they call a metaform. This surface can defy the conventional laws of reflection, gathering the visible light rays entering an AR/VR eyepiece from all directions and diverting them directly into the human eye.

“When we actuate the device and illuminate it with the right wavelength, all of these antennas start oscillating, radiating a new light that delivers the image we want downstream,” Nick Vamivakas, a professor of quantum optics and quantum physics, said in a news release

Better optics aren’t the only challenge for VR. One area that could make VR a lot more realistic is the ability to track your whole body instead of just head and hand movements, like most of the gear on the market today. Virtual-reality gaming company The Edge VR is working on a more immersive VR platform that can track whole-body movements and allow users to interact with physical props. 

The system uses magnetic tracking and motion capture. Because the new technique doesn't require line of sight to track the player's body, close-quarter multiplayer games and applications will be possible, Adam Anfiteatro, CEO of The Edge VR, said in an email interview. 

“A highly accurate occlusion-free technology that brings the player's full body into their experience with them would dramatically increase the immersion of any VR experience,” he added. “Even more so if this technology is used to match physical props with virtual ones that the players can interact with.”

Person tapping virtual interface elements while wearing VR glasses

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Mixed Reality May Be the Future

One VR feature that’s rapidly advancing is video-see-through, also known as mixed reality (XR), where users can see the real world through cameras in the device and have digital overlays on the top, Hugo Swart, a vice president at Qualcomm Technologies, said in an email interview. 

“XR products are trending towards more seamless and smaller form factors, such as head-worn glasses that are fashionable and close to normal glasses, with more efficient power consumption and thermals,” he added. 

Qualcomm is working on power-efficient and smaller chipsets to reduce the size of the headsets that are also more powerful. The improved graphics enabled by these chips will soon lead to more photorealistic rendering, creating an opportunity to see projections of “lifelike avatars,” Swart predicted. 

"These advancements mean a better, more integrated experience for VR users as well as mass adoption of the technology into our daily lives."

Current processing power on standalone VR headset like the Oculus Quest 2 is limited to what can be crammed into a small chassis. But manufacturers are working on ways to offload rendering to the cloud, Saxon Dixon, a co-founder of creative technology studio Zebrar, which works on virtual reality, said in an email interview. 

“With the arrival of 5G in many countries, this will also help us move data around quickly and easily and solve for weight and rendering issues,” Dixon added. 

Dixon said the next generation of headsets will likely have eye-tracking capabilities built into the hardware, which will enable advancements such as better rendering and allow feedback to users. 

“These advancements mean a better, more integrated experience for VR users as well as mass adoption of the technology into our daily lives,” Dixon said. “Exactly like smartphones have become ingrained in our daily existence.”

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