Why virtual reality headsets don’t quite match reality – and what it takes to achieve Ready Player One status

Why virtual reality headsets don't quite match reality - and what it takes to achieve Ready Player One status

Tech Highlights:

  • Wouldn’t it be awesome to walk through a VR game environment, like a horror title, that seems so realistic, your brain can’t perceive what’s real and what’s not? How cool would be to see a photorealistic hologram of your favorite singer dancing in your living room via augmented reality (AR) tech?

  • The Quest 2 is a fantastic virtual reality (VR) headset that costs less than $300, allowing budget-conscious users to experience the VR world without breaking the bank. Is it a flawless representation of reality? No, but to be honest, there isn’t a single consumer headset that can. Meta explained why this is the case. Mark Zuckerberg said in a virtual webcast to the press that Meta will one day release the classic headset with lightweight comfort and ultra-high fidelity, a la “Ready Player One.” The Meta CEO, however, acknowledged that this is easier said than done.

These are some of the grandiose goals Meta has in store for its VR arm, but as mentioned, there are some dilemmas it must tackle first. “Just seeing a realistic-looking image isn’t enough to feel like you’re really there,” Zuckerberg said, discussing the limitations of current-gen headsets. The Meta CEO then listed all the visual cues users need to reach peak realism in the VR world: On top of all that, Meta needs to somehow pack all of those powerful internals into a lightweight, comfortable headset, which is difficult and damn-near impossible due to high heat generation. Hence why current-gen VR headsets tend to be clunky. It’s either build an unwieldy head-mounted display that’s cool as a cucumber or a create featherweight one that could burn users’ face off.

As such, when Meta uses the term “visual Turing test,” it implies that the social-media giant hopes to one day launch a headset that renders visuals that are so realistic that users can’t figure out whether they’re looking at a simulated environment or the real world. “It’s a test that no VR technology can pass today,” Meta Chief Scientist of Reality Labs Michael Abrash said. “VR already creates a strong presence in being in virtual places in a genuinely convincing way, [but] it’s not yet at the level where anyone would wonder what they’re looking at is real or virtual.” One of the biggest challenges that lie ahead for Meta is tackling resolution. “We estimate that getting to 20/20 vision [in VR] across the full human field of view would take more than 8K resolution,” Zuckerberg said.

Checking all these boxes is making Meta’s head spin, but according to Zuckerberg, the company has a “long-term roadmap that will solve these different challenges.” And Meta intends to do so by introducing a benchmark called the “visual Turing test.” For the uninitiated, a Turing test is an analysis that determines whether a machine can imitate human intelligence to a point that it can deceive real humans into believing that it’s a living, breathing person.

Fortunately for Meta’s VR engineers, our eyes don’t perceive everything in high resolution across the entire field of view. Consequently, the Reality Labs team will take advantage of this idiosyncrasy. Still, Meta still has the challenge of achieving “retinal resolution” in a headset, which means getting up to about 60 pixels per degree. “This is about three times where are today,” Zuckerberg added.

Meta’s display research team got to work on developing prototypes that could accurately depict the real world. The most advanced model it developed to rectify VR’s resolution issue is called “Butterscotch.” It’s resolution is so high, users can read the 20/20 vision line on an eye chart in VR. Butterscotch can serve up about 55 pixels per degree, which is 2.5x the resolution of the Quest 2. But is it ready for market? No way. It’s field-of-view is much narrower than standard VR headsets. On top of that, it’s too bulky and heavy.

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