Meta's Upcoming Headsets Could Bring VR Closer to Real Life, Experts Say

Better optics will make all the difference

  • Meta showed off a handful of VR devices, each designed to improve an element of VR.
  • Experts say the new prototype headsets could help bring VR closer to the real thing.  
  • Meta is developing next-generation VR displays.
Guy interact with virtual reality headsets inside a decay and dark warehouse transported to a different and colorful new dimension

Artur Debat / Getty Images

Meta's new prototype headsets could help make virtual reality (VR) nearly indistinguishable from reality, experts say. 

CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed off a handful of VR devices, each designed to improve an element of VR. The goal, Zuckerberg said, is for future headsets to pass a so-called "visual Turing test," in reference to a test of artificial intelligence.

"The new prototypes are built to explore improvements to different, specific aspects of VR optics and technology that, when combined together, are key to the experience, sense of presence, and enabling of use cases that, at the moment, may be hard to achieve," Lucas San Pedro, chief technology officer at virtual reality platform provider Immerse, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Better Sight

Zuckerberg revealed a high-end prototype called Half Dome 3. He also showed off headsets dubbed Butterscotch, Starburst, Holocake 2, and Mirror Lake. 

To improve the headsets, Meta is developing next-generation virtual reality displays. Zuckerberg said the screens provide a realistic enough experience for users to feel like they're in the same room with other virtual people. Most current VR headsets have low resolution, display distortion artifacts, and are uncomfortable when worn for long periods.

"The new prototypes Meta recently unveiled seek to solve a number of the issues that make current virtual reality headsets feel a lot more "virtual" than "reality," Emma Mankey Hidem, CEO of Sunnyside VR, a VR production company, told Lifewire via email.

Other visual processing issues that Zuckerberg hopes to fix are the color and lens distortion, Hidem pointed out. For color, they've built a prototype that has HDR to make colors feel more vivid and realistic because the real world is significantly brighter than a screen. Lenses automatically distort light passing through them, particularly when moving your head in a VR headset; this lens distortion can become noticeable. Meta's prototype attempts to eliminate this lens distortion in real-time by adjusting the visuals accordingly.

"Overall, these things stand to make the user experience better," Hidem said. "The more like reality the experience is, [visually], the less likely people are to get motion sick, as well. That said, these prototypes pretty much only improve the sense of sight in VR, and many people want other senses better replicated in VR, particularly touch, which is pretty rudimentary right now with vibrating haptic type feedback for the most part."

San Pedro pointed out that the retinal resolution prototype (Butterscotch) can solve the issue of text and fine detail rendering, "which is a major limiting factor in the type and style of UI that can work well in VR. Similarly, varifocal lenses—enabled by eye-tracking—can enhance presence and the realism and natural feel of a scene thanks to the ability to dynamically change focal depth."

VR Competition Heats Up

John C.C Fan, CEO of Kopin, a company that developed some of the first wearable displays for the military, said that the Meta prototypes show that Zuckerberg is worried about losing ground to Apple, which is rumored to be developing its own VR headset. 

"To be worn on heads for a period of time, headsets must be comfortable, lightweight, good looking, and technologies must be acceptable (particularly cognitively) to we humans," Fan said, in an email interview with Lifewire. "In other words, humans must come first. I must say this video shows too many technologies, but too little references to the fact that we humans have to wear them for a period of hours."

Startled guy interact with virtual reality headsets inside a decay and dark warehouse transported to outer space

Artur Debat / Getty Images

The latest headset prototypes from Meta are moving away from virtual reality as "a performance" and aiming for ease of use, Michael Gaizutis, founder of the digital design experience agency RNO1, said via email. 

"Meta is clearly the frontrunner in this space for now, but it will be interesting to see if they can make a utility into a valuable tool that users will gravitate to," Gaizutis added. "It's clear that there is endless profit potential for brands in the metaverse, but many are weighing the earning potential with the ethical implications that could be faced down the line."

Meta hasn't revealed how much the new headsets will cost, but it might be lower than expected based on their leading-edge specification, Erik Haig, an associate at Harbor Research, said in an email interview. 

"Much like how Amazon uses its many income streams to allow them to undercut their competition in terms of price across various products and segments, Meta now has this same opportunity with the Metaverse," Haig added. "As the Metaverse builds into a stream of income for Meta through their fees on digital assets and experiences, as well as their income through their other platforms, they will be able to continually price their devices below that of their competition to drive further users into the Metaverse ecosystem."

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