As sharp as your own eyes – Get started with Varjo’s VR prototype

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Yes, we were allowed to come by for a demo at CES, but taking photos and filming was out of the question. Normally such an answer to a demo request would make us question very hard whether it’s worth it; the previews we write during CES are intended to show new developments, in still and moving images. Still, we decided to leave the convention center in the middle of the week and head for an anonymous hotel room in one of the giant hotels that dot the Las Vegas Strip. The Finnish company Varjo had settled here for the week and demonstrated the latest prototype of its virtual reality goggles, which has an image quality that the big players can only dream of at the moment.

The company’s unnamed headset, which is mainly being developed for the business market, is equipped with what Varjo calls the Bionic Display. That is actually a normal VR display of 1600p, with a microdisplay with an extremely high resolution, the image of which is projected over the normal screen. This way you get a sweet spot in the middle of the screen that is much sharper than the image you get with other modern VR glasses. By comparison, the display in HTC’s Vive Pro has a pixel density of 615 pixels per inch, while Varjo’s Bionic Display has a pixel density of over 3000ppi. That roughly corresponds to 60 pixels per degree of field of view, which is about the maximum resolution that our eyes can perceive.

The Bionic Display is not physically located in front of the ‘normal’ screen, called the context display by Varjo , but at the bottom, at an angle of 90 degrees. The image is projected onto that of the context display via a semi-transparent mirror. The Bionic Display is a micro display and less than two centimeters diagonal. This means that only a relatively low resolution is needed to achieve a high pixel density, in this case full HD. The extra computing power required to achieve the sharp image is therefore limited and the demos that Varjo gave also ran from laptops. Powerful gaming laptops, yes, but we’re used to seeing VR demos served only from PCs.

Razor-sharp images

So the prototype we were able to try has a static part in the middle with an angle of view of about 30 degrees that is razor sharp. Because the angle of view is not huge, you can look past the sharp part. However, VR users are conditioned not to roll their eyes too much, but to keep looking ahead and turn their entire head. This is because the sharpness of the lenses in the corners is often moderate. In practice, you will therefore spend most of the time looking through the Bionic Display. The extra sharpness that that screen offers came to the fore in various demos. For example, we were able to view the inside of an aircraft cockpit, with even the smallest labels on the buttons and switches being easy to read. Anyone who has ever used VR glasses,

The most impressive demo, however, was the one in which we were placed in a museum, in a room full of paintings, which was built on the basis of photogrammetry. This involves taking a huge amount of photos in a room, after which those photos are used to create both the geometry and textures for a virtual environment. The result is a virtual space that looks incredibly realistic, where the high sharpness of the Varjo headset allows you to put your nose in front of a painting and see the texture of the canvas and the depth of the brush strokes . Existing VR headsets don’t even come close to this level of detail and it contributes enormously to the experience.

Certainly not perfect yet

Having said all that, even with the headset from Varjo you are constantly aware of the fact that you have glasses on your head. Of course because of the physical weight, but also because of the low viewing angle, which is around 100 degrees, just like with other headsets. The Bionic Display, however sharp it is, is also somewhat distracting. Varjo blurs the pixels at the edges of the projection to create a smooth transition between the two areas of focus, but a blurred edge is still visible. The extent to which that disturbs depends mainly on what you are looking at in the virtual world. Against a plain background, such as a sky, it is more visible than in a scene with many different details. Furthermore, the faster you move your head, the more clearly it will be visible that blurred objects become sharper once they come to the center of your field of view and vice versa.

The next step in the development of the Bionic Display is that the projection can be moved according to the position of the user’s eyes. Tracking that position already works; the current model has hardware built in for eye tracking and this works quickly and accurately. The second step, moving the microdisplay, is something Varjo says he already has working in his labs, but is not yet ready to be built into glasses. That step will not be an easy one, because if the display cannot move directly with the eyes and there is too much latency, the end result will distract rather than impress.

Varjo also wants to transform his headset into AR glasses in the future by attaching a camera system to the front and mixing the images from it with virtual images. A different approach than with existing AR glasses, which project virtual images on top of ‘real’ reality, but one that, according to Varjo, has a better chance of success and produces a better fusion of real and virtual.

Before that, the version that we could try will be released first, with a focus on the business market. That is also the reason that we were not allowed to make images; the design of the glasses is almost final and Varjo does not want to reveal that until the glasses officially go on sale.

None of that makes much of a difference to consumers right now, and Varjo still has some technical hurdles to overcome before it has a system that’s right for the home user. In any case, we are enthusiastic about the potential of the Bionic Display. The difference in experience with current VR glasses is enormous, thanks to the razor-sharp image.

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