Prototype headphones prove that the perfect metaphor is way too far

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Meta’s Starburst VR prototype is unlike any traditional headset.

From some angles, it looks like someone pulled the guts out of a small desktop computer – fans included – and attached heavy-duty handles to it. Those are significant because the Starburst is too heavy to wear, as a result of the massive, free-standing bulb mounted in the back.

As Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg admits, Starburst is “quite impractical” in its current form. But for a company that wants to give its users virtual experiences that are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, these massive VR binoculars are still an important development.

To blur the line between the physical and the virtual — or pass the “visual Turing test,” some researchers say — Meta must clear some serious obstacles. Future headphones should be more stylish than the ones we have now, yet they’re more capable. And the screens inside should be clearer, smarter, and brighter than anything out there today.

That’s why Starburst is built around a big lamp — it’s one prototype, intended to tackle one big problem. And she is not alone.

“The point of all of this work is to help us identify technology paths that will allow us to make enough meaningful improvements that we can start getting closer to visual realism,” Zuckerberg told reporters during a presentation.

This verification formula is an important part of his vision for metaverse: an immersive “embodied internet” where users will feel as if they are inhabiting a space rather than just looking at it. But despite the metaverse hype that Zuckerberg unleashed after laying out that vision last year, the Meta prototypes offer a tangible sense of just how far the company is from delivering on that promise.

First, the company has to figure out how to make everything we see through a headset more detailed.

Think of your TV or computer monitor: the higher the resolution, the clearer and more realistic the objects displayed on it appear. But the tiny screens inside current VR headsets can’t come close to that clarity – they contain very few pixels, stretching across a very wide area.

Another prototype, Butterscotch, sort of solved the problem. It’s bigger than anyone might want to wear for a very long time, and “nowhere near a charge” according to Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Meta Reality Labs. However, the visuals it produces are detailed enough that the wearer can read the bottom line, 20/20 of the virtual vision chart – not bad, compared to the blurry patches seen through Meta Quest 2.

catch? The researchers had to narrow the field of view to about half of what you see through Quest 2. That is, looking through Butterscotch shows you a bit of the virtual world in front of you – but what you can see is very clear. It’s not a huge trade off, but Abrash concedes that it will be at least a few years before the right types of screens appear.

“There are currently no display panels that support anything close to the retina resolution of the full field of view of today’s VR headsets,” he said.

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Another prototype, called Half Dome, was first designed in 2017 and is now under third revision. Inside this headset and others like it, Reality Labs researchers have tuned what they call “multifocal” lenses — those that move both physically and automatically to help the wearer’s eyes focus on virtual “objects” in front of them.

If you wear a traditional VR headset, you will find that the focal distance is placed a few feet in front of you. Try to bring something – for example, a virtual handwritten message – closer to your face, and you may find that you cannot read it.

In such a situation, your two real eyes focus just fine – the problem is that your view of the world is naturally a bit farsighted. Varifocal lenses, then, are like a pair of glasses that have a life of their own, and they move to keep virtual objects in focus no matter where they are.

The company says Meta has tried these lenses for the better part of five years, and despite once claiming they were almost “prime-ready,” they haven’t appeared in any headset you can buy right now. For now, that seems unlikely to change.

“Even when you sometimes have a prototype that seems to work, getting it into the product can take some time,” Zuckerberg said. “We are working on it.”

One of the final Meta prototypes showed that reporters – dubbed Holocake 2 – drove Zuckerberg’s point home.

Unlike other experimental headphones Meta has shown off, the Holocake 2 is wearable and fully functional – it can connect to a computer and run your existing VR software without a hitch. Because of the specific way researchers have designed its optics, the Holocake is the thinnest and lightest VR headset the company says it has ever made.

But even that doesn’t mean Holocake is ready to debut on store shelves any time soon. Unlike more traditional VR headsets, Holocake 2 uses lasers as light sources rather than light-emitting diodes or LEDs. (You know, the stuff in some of your lamps.)

“As of today, the jury is still looking for a suitable laser source, but if this proves to be traceable, there will be a clear path for VR screens that look like sunglasses,” Abrash said.

The fact that these prototypes exist is proof that these issues can be addressed individually – if not always in style. However, the real difficulty lies in building a single headset that addresses all of these areas and manages to be both comfortable and energy efficient at the same time. The researchers suspect that the end result could resemble the design of a concept called Mirror Lake.

While it doesn’t exist as a working prototype (and probably won’t for a while), Mirror Lake packs many of these visual advances — as well as a screen that projects the wearer’s eyes and face — into a headset that resembles a pair of ski goggles.

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Douglas Lanman, director of display systems research at Meta Reality Labs, also called Mirror Lake the company’s first “mixed reality” concept, referring to a type of wearable display that aims to integrate digital objects and environments into your view of the physical world.

Abrash says it will be a “game changer for the VR visual experience”. Now Meta just needs to make it – or something like that.

Meanwhile, the company faces other winds.

Meta’s revenue growth has begun to slow and Reuters reported last month that the Reality Labs division could not afford to pursue certain projects. Hiring at the company has also slowed, although company spokeswoman Ilana Weidmann said Meta “has no plans to lay off workers at this time.” And while the company was expected to release a pair of augmented reality glasses codenamed Project Nazare in 2024, those plans were said to be scrapped in favor of turning it into an experimental device.

“We assess key priorities across the company and put energy behind them especially in relation to our core business and reality labs,” Weidmann said in an email.

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