Meta wants to make it clear that it’s not giving up on high-end VR experiences just yet. So, in a rare move, the company is spilling the beans on multiple VR headset prototypes at once. According to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the goal is to eventually develop something that could pass the “visual Turing test,” or the point at which virtual reality becomes virtually indistinguishable from the real world. That’s the Holy Grail for VR enthusiasts, but for Meta’s critics, it’s another troubling sign that the company wants to own reality (though Zuckerberg says he doesn’t want to fully own the Metaverse).
As explained by von Zuckerberg and Michael Abrash, Meta’s Reality Labs Chief Scientist, creating the perfect VR headset involves perfecting four basic concepts. First, they need to achieve high resolution so you can have 20/20 VR vision (without the need for prescription glasses). In addition, headsets need variable focal length and eye tracking so you can easily focus on near and far objects. as well as correcting optical distortions inherent in current lenses. (We saw this technology in the Half Dome prototypes.) Eventually, Meta needs to bring HDR, or High Dynamic Range, into headsets to deliver more realistic brightness, shadows, and color depth. Even more than resolution, HDR is a major reason why modern televisions and computer monitors look better than LCDs from a decade ago.
And of course, the company needs to pack all of these concepts into a headset that’s lightweight and easy to wear. In 2020, Facebook Reality Labs presented concept VR glasses with holographic lenses that looked like oversized sunglasses. Building on that original concept, the company today unveiled Holocake 2 (above), its thinnest VR headset yet. It looks more traditional than the original pair, but most notably, Zuckerberg says it’s a fully functional prototype that can play any VR game while connected to a PC.
“Displays that fit the full capacity of human vision will unlock some really important things,” Zuckerberg said in a media briefing. “The first is a realistic sense of presence, and that’s feeling like you’re with someone or in a place, like you’re physically there. And given our focus on helping people connect, you can see why this is such a big deal. He described testing photorealistic avatars in a mixed reality environment where his VR companion appeared to be standing right next to him. While “presence” might seem like an esoteric term these days, it’s easier to understand once Headsets let you realistically connect with distant friends, family, and co-workers.
Meta’s upcoming Cambria headset appears to be a small step towards true VR presence, the brief glimpses we’ve seen of its tech make it seem like a small upgrade from Oculus Quest 2. While admitting that the perfect headset is still a long way off, Zuckerberg showed off prototypes that show just how much progress Meta’s Reality Labs has made so far.
There’s Butterscotch (above), which can display near-retinal resolution, allowing you to read the bottom line of an eye test in VR. To achieve this, Reality Labs engineers had to halve the Quest 2’s field of view, a compromise that definitely wouldn’t work in a finished product. The Starburst HDR prototype looks even wilder: it’s a bundle of cables, fans, and other electronics that can produce up to 20,000 nits of brightness. That’s a huge leap from the Quest 2’s 100 nits and is miles ahead of even the super-bright mini-LED displays we see today. (My eyes water at the thought of getting that much light close to my face.) Starburst is too big and unwieldy to strap onto your head, so explorers have to look in like binoculars.
While the Holocake 2 appears to be Meta’s most polished prototype yet, it doesn’t include all of the technology the company is currently testing. That’s the goal of the Mirror Lake concept (above), which will feature holographic lenses, HDR, mechanical varifocals, and eye-tracking. There’s no working model yet, but it’s a decent look at what Meta is aiming for in a few years. It looks like high-tech goggles and is powered by laser-backlit LCD displays. The company is also developing a way to show your eyes and facial expressions to outside observers with an external display on the front.