Meta offers a glimpse at next-generation VR headsets

Meta previewed some of its experimental VR prototypes. The company says these headsets will pave the way for next-generation devices.

Mark Zuckerberg wears VR headset

Meta has reoriented its entire social networking business around a mission to build the metaverse.

Photo: Meta

Meta is pulling back the curtain on some of its experimental virtual-reality projects, showcasing a number of new prototypes the company says will help it advance display technology to the point of being indistinguishable from real life.

In a press briefing last week, Mark Zuckerberg and Meta Reality Labs Chief Scientist Michael Abrash discussed a handful of VR devices, each designed to improve an element of VR. They all have colorful names, too, like Butterscotch, Starburst, Holocake and Mirror Lake.

The goal, Zuckerberg says, is for headsets of the future to pass a so-called “visual Turing test,” referencing the imitation game designed to test the sophistication of artificial intelligence. In this context, however, Meta wants its VR headset to display imagery that passes for the real world, a feat it considers “the holy grail of display research.”

“Today’s VR headsets deliver incredible 3D visual experiences, but the experience still differs in many ways from what we see in the real world. They have a lower resolution than what’s offered by laptops, TVs and phones; the lenses distort the wearer’s view; and they cannot be used for extended periods of time,” the company explained. “To get there, we need to build an unprecedented type of VR display system — a lightweight display that is so advanced it can deliver what our eyes need to function naturally so they perceive we are looking at the real world in VR.”

Meta's Holocake 2 combines a\u00a0holographic lens with a so-called polarization-based optical folding technique to drastically bring down the weight and size of the device. Image: Meta

Meta has reoriented its entire social networking business around a mission to build the metaverse, with Zuckerberg calling it the next big leap for the internet after mobile and a cornerstone of how we might socialize, play games, shop, work and communicate in the future. But a key element of Meta’s specific vision for the metaverse involves hardware: in particular, VR headsets, augmented-reality glasses and mixed-reality devices that might be able to combine the two technologies and push them into the mainstream.

A key early advantage for Meta is its investments in such hardware, like its 2014 acquisition of Oculus that helped it gain a massive 80% market share in VR hardware sales. But VR adoption, while growing fast during the pandemic, lags miles behind other consumer electronics categories; AR, outside of smartphone apps, mobile games and some select glasses brands, has yet to materialize in any meaningful fashion.

So Meta is now going to great lengths, and spending billions, to ensure it can maintain its edge on AR and VR before competitors like Apple, Microsoft and others begin releasing consumer devices that can compete with Meta’s wireless Quest headset, its forthcoming Project Cambria headset and its planned AR devices. Though Meta is reportedly cutting back on Reality Labs spending of late after incurring $10 billion in losses last year, the company is intent on showing how it’s still pushing the state of the art forward.

For Meta, that means continuing to try to bring down the size and weight of devices, increase resolution and making VR more comfortable. The prototypes it showed last week each target a different hurdle VR faces today. For instance, the Half Dome series of prototypes, which Meta began building back in 2017, experiments with varifocal technology that “ensures the focus is correct and enables clear and comfortable vision within arm’s length for extended periods of time,” while also bringing down size and weight so headsets are less taxing on the head and neck.

Meta's Half Dome prototype series. The Half Dome series of prototypes are designed to experiment with varifocal technology and in slimming down VR headset form factors. Image: Meta

The Butterscotch prototype aims to produce “retinal” resolution, or image quality similar to that of the human eye. Meta said it shrunk down the field of view of a standard Quest 2 headset and replaced the lens with something higher quality, allowing for much higher resolution, though in a package that was “nowhere near shippable” due to its bulk, Meta said.

Starburst, on the other hand, is an HDR VR headset — one of the first of its kind, the company claims — that can reproduce levels of brightness seen by the human eye in an indoor or nighttime scenario. But it’s also far too large, requiring a cable tethering it to an external processing device and a form factor that requires users hold it like a pair of binoculars.

Meta's Starburst prototype headset. Meta's Starburst is one of the first of its kind HDR VR headsets, the company claims, allowing for more realistic depictions of brightness. Image: Meta

The final two prototypes Meta unveiled are Holocake 2 and Mirror Lake. The former is the thinnest and lightest VR headset the company has ever made. It resembles a pair of sunglasses, but is capable of playing VR games on PC when tethered thanks to its holographic optics and its so-called polarization-based optical folding, or “pancake” optics, a technique that effectively squishes the display panel and lens closer together. The Holocake 2 builds on Meta's previous work in holographic optics, which it detailed back in 2020.

Meta says Mirror Lake is not so much a prototype as it is a concept design that will, in time, bring together all of this technology into a single device with a lightweight form factor that shows “what a complete, next-gen display system could look like.” That said, it may be many years before Mirror Lake materializes as a wearable device, and potentially many more before a consumer device is able to combine all of these advancements together in one package and pass Meta’s visual Turing test.


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