Last year Mark Zuckerberg renamed Facebook as ‘Meta’ – meaning ‘beyond’ – sparking waves of virtual and augmented reality announcements from companies including Microsoft and Nvidia. Meta’s pivot into VR technologies is part of a larger goal to establish what has been dubbed the ‘metaverse’: an immersive computer-simulated environment that facilitates social interaction between individuals. Meta said it would devote $10 billion R&D spending to the project this financial year, claiming that their so-called “metaverse” will take a decade to bear complete. In 2014, the company bought Oculus, which at the time had successfully launched a prototype immersive VR headset - the Rift, crowdfunded via a Kickstarter campaign. It was joined by enterprise augmented reality (AR) devices, most notably Microsoft’s HoloLens. Microsoft was disdainful of the entertainment-oriented VR and AR market:
“I’m just not hearing that people desperately need another way to be entertained right now,” Microsoft’s Lorraine Bardeen, general manager of engineering for Microsoft’s augmented reality applications told a newspaper.
But fear of missing out has spurred companies on. What does the industry have to offer in its current state, and what can we expect to see?
Consumer-focused VR was first marketed in the early 1990s, and has advanced considerably. The majority of consumer VR headsets have been developed specifically to create immersive gaming experiences, and this is still the case.
Affordable standalone VR headsets, requiring no connection to a powerful PC or a dedicated base station, are a more recent development. Priced at £299, the Meta Quest 2 is perhaps the best known: costing around half that of rival products when launched, it sold 8.7 million units in 2021 easily making it the best-selling VR headset ever produced. That’s a number that piques the interest of software developers.
Pico Interactive, a subsidiary of ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, offers a range of standalone headsets, with the consumer-targeted Pico Neo 3 Link available in the UK and Europe. Much like Meta’s Quest 2, the Pico Neo 3 Link uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 chipset, with its design striking a balance between display fidelity and field of view. It is important to note that any increase in a headset’s field of view necessitates a reduction in pixel density, as the image from the display must be projected across a larger portion of the wearer’s vision, with fewer pixels being allocated to a given degree of that vision.
Enthusiast consumer VR headsets include the Valve Index, HP’s Reverb G2, and HTC VIVE Pro 2, all of which require a PC connection to compute the VR scene. All three are designed for high-quality gaming, with the Valve Index & VIVE Pro 2 offering higher fields of view, and the HP Reverb G2 a high-resolution panel and lower field of view to provide extra visual fidelity for the wearer.
Enterprise VR offerings vary more significantly. Ultra-wide field of view headsets such as the VRgineers XTAL 3 which has about 180 degrees of horizontal field of view, are designed for flight simulators and other seated applications, providing the best possible peripheral vision currently available in a VR device. Each individual human eye has a horizontal field of view of about 135 degrees and a vertical field of view of just over 180 degrees, with the combined field of view for a human being up to 220 degrees horizontally.
Headsets such as the Varjo XR-3 include high-fidelity cameras which record surroundings and embed them into the virtual environment to create “mixed reality” simulations, combining elements of the physical and virtual world. While these devices require a tethered PC, standalone enterprise headsets such as the HTC VIVE Focus 3 provide a high-end untethered experience, with hot-swappable batteries, a counterbalanced headstrap, and active cooling systems, allowing for use in dynamic simulation activities such as virtualized on-site training for tasks that might otherwise be impractical to train for such as performing surgery or entering hazardous environments
A flood of devices is heading to the market. PlayStation VR2, expected to launch in late 2022, will be the first gaming-focused VR headset to incorporate eye tracking and a trick called “dynamic foveated rendering”, which significantly reduces computational overhead required to render a VR scene by displaying more detail in areas where the user’s attention is focused, and less detail in their peripheral vision. Think of how your eye follows the ball when watching a football match: the ball can be rendered in greater detail, and the boundaries of the image in less detail.
Another upcoming headset, the Pimax Reality 12K QLED, is touted as the first VR device with a 200Hz display refresh rate, as well as being the first standalone VR headset with an ultra-wide field of view, advertised as 200 degrees horizontally. It has a number of plug-in modules including one for 5G.
The enterprise market is also seeing a significant wave of new products slated for 2022 and beyond, with the Lynx R1 being one of the first dedicated mixed reality standalone VR headsets, with dual front-mounted “passthrough” cameras that enable wearers to see the real world through the headset, as well as a flip-up visor design. Meta is reportedly planning to release four new VR devices over the next two years, starting with Project Cambria, a business-focused standalone product, rumoured to include eye and face tracking, as well as next-generation lenses that require significantly less distance from the source display, resulting in a major improvement to the size and form factor of the headset.
Lacking the immediate appeal of video games enabled by VR headsets, augmented reality has had a harder time convincing the public of its value, with significant limitations on headset resolutions and fields of view seriously impacting usability. Early AR devices flopped spectacularly. In 2013 venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Andreessen Horowitz teamed up to create a $500 million fund for developers to write applications for its Google Glass AR headset, a brainchild of Google co-founder Sergey Brin. In addition to being expensive ($1,500) it was plagued with technical issues, and a Google X employee later admitted that “the team within Google X knew the product wasn’t even close to ready for prime time,” according to one Google employee.
Current AR headsets suffer from very restrictive fields of view, of around 30 to 50 degrees compared to the 90 to 120 degrees for most VR headsets. Users also expect AR units to be much lighter and less cumbersome. Today AR headsets come in a number of form factors. At the simplest end, glasses intended largely for viewing a virtual screen are available that do not track wearer’s movements. These come closest to the form factor of an ordinary pair of spectacles, while sacrificing functionality. The Nreal Air, released in 2022, can be connected to a smartphone to be used as a virtual display, and achieves an impressive weight of 76 grams. These are generally sold as a portable alternative to a TV screen.
There are also several “true” augmented reality products that can be powered by a smartphone. The Nreal Light and MAD Gaze Glow Plus feature integrated cameras and sensors to track their position and rotation. This also allows for more advanced features such as multiple virtual screens anchored to real-world positions, or inserting 3D objects into a real-world environment. However, this tracking capability comes at the cost of form factor and weight. The Light and Glow Plus weigh 102 grams and 96 grams respectively.
Fully standalone AR devices are generally far heavier than smartphone-driven headsets, and usually forgo a glasses-style frame in favour of a bulkier “halo strap” design. The current market leader, Microsoft HoloLens 2, features an integrated Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 and a battery life of around 3 hours, but weighs over half a kilogram as a result, making it significantly less comfortable for long-term use. It also features integrated hand-tracking capability not seen on lighter phone-powered devices, allowing for gesture-based control. Due to their advanced feature sets and cost, contemporary standalone AR headsets are generally targeted towards the enterprise market. One example is from Vuzix, which already markets their AR glasses for use cases such as allowing doctors and industrial workers to augment their vision.
The controversial company Magic Leap is known for raising large amounts of money, but failing to deliver. After receiving almost $3bn for its first generation AR headset, Magic Leap failed to reach many of its technical targets.Investors wrote down losses by 94 per cent and the company moved into a smaller business market with a further $500 million injection. The Magic Leap 2, a standalone AR device offers a considerable increase in its vertical field of view when compared to previous devices such as HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap 1. This yields an overall diagonal field of view of approximately 70 degrees (around 20 degrees more than HoloLens 2 and ML1). While this is a sizable improvement over previous generation AR headsets, it should be noted that this is still significantly more restrictive than the fields of view of most VR devices, and it is almost certain that field of view will persist as a limiting factor in augmented reality for the foreseeable future.
A Bite of the Apple?
Even Apple isn’t immune from the dilemmas facing VR & AR product designers: focus on functionality, or make it more convenient and wearable. Apple’s own struggles to bring a product to market emerged in detail recently thanks to the investigative Silicon Valley news site The Information. The site reported that two factions inside Apple advanced their own competing visions of what the product should be. One group proposed a powerful but tethered unit, while another, led by Sir Jony Ive, advanced an untethered mixed reality style product, which required no base station or computer. Apple had planned to launch a product in 2019, but in the end both groups were sent back to the drawing board. Bloomberg reports that a mixed reality headset will likely launch within two years, with 14 cameras facing both inward and outward.
It may seem that VR and AR has a long way to go before reaching mainstream adoption - largely due to the cumbersome and expensive nature of these technologies, however, recent years have seen significant investment from many of the industry’s top companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Meta and Sony - bringing swathes of improvements. This is only likely to increase as the lure of a new market - the ‘metaverse’ – remains.
Article by Rory Brown, Founder & CEO - VRcompare
Rory Brown is the founder of VRcompare, the internet’s most comprehensive database of virtual reality and augmented reality hardware. His primary
aim is to remove the barrier to entry into immersive technologies for consumers and businesses alike. VRcompare achieves this by providing impartial resources to tackle disinformation and enable fair product evaluation in the XR hardware sector.