Varjo's VR headset lets you see virtual objects in much greater detail, and could be used for training, design or entertainment
It’s virtual reality like you’ve never seen it before: in human-eye resolution. Helsinki-based startup Varjo is building a VR headset that lets the user see virtual objects to the same level of detail as they would in real life, producing a crisp image much clearer than the pixelated view you usually get when you stick a digital display close to your face.
The Varjo headset takes advantage of a natural quirk of human vision. At any one moment, our eyes see only a small area of focus at their highest resolution. “If you put your arm out, it’s the size of your thumbnail,” says Varjo co-founder and CEO Urho Konttori. As our eyes move to focus somewhere else, so does this area of high-resolution. This is called foveation; it is why, as you read this sentence, your eyes jump left to right across the text.
Varjo’s device mimics this phenomenon by putting two displays inside the headset. One shows a full view of the virtual world at a standard VR resolution. The other is a micro OLED display that covers only a small fraction of the field of view but presents it in much higher resolution. An optical combiner merges the two displays so that you see both as one image. The result is a virtual scene that appears perfectly sharp in the spot where your eyes are focused and is fuzzier around the edges.
In an early prototype, the higher-res area remains in a fixed spot inside the headset and moves with it when you turn your head to look at something. Next, Varjo plans to add gaze-tracking, so that you only need to glance somewhere inside the virtual scene to see it more clearly. “Wherever you’re looking with your eyes, that’s where the high-resolution region is going to be,” says Konttori.
Varjo was founded in 2016 and operated in stealth mode until June 2017. The company raised an $8.2 million (£5.8m) series A funding round in August 2017 and received $6.7 million (£4.8m) from Finnish government funding agency Tekes in November.
Konttori says that the high-res display could be particularly useful in training simulations. A flight simulator demo places the user inside a virtual cockpit. Looking around, it is possible to see all of the dials, switches and radar screens in realistic detail. When you look directly at a lever or button, you can even read the words written on it – something that VR usually struggles with. “Today, if you do VR training, you’re in a way training half-blind people,” says Konttori. “They will be operating totally differently than they would if they could actually see things properly.”
Other applications could cover architecture and engineering, industrial design, and entertainment. Varjo’s initial development partners include aerospace company Airbus; car makers Audi, BMW and Volkswagen; and entertainment firms Technicolor and 20th Century Fox. Partners are already starting to get their hands on a beta version of the technology, and the company plans to go into full production at the end of 2018. Konttori expects a Varjo headset to have a price point of around $5,000 to $10,000.
The first headsets will only support virtual reality, but Varjo will soon offer an augmented reality add-on, so that users can see virtual objects in the context of the real world around them. Konttori gives the example of an industrial designer wearing a headset while designing a car on their computer. They can use their keyboard and mouse as usual but can also see a virtual version of the car, morphing in front of their eyes as they make changes.
Many AR headsets, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap, use “optical see-through” displays to merge the real and virtual worlds. These put a transparent screen in front of your eyes that virtual objects can be displayed on top of, like an overlay on reality. But a drawback of this is that you cannot block out any light from the real world. “What happens as a consequence is that things look very ghostlike,” says Konttori.
Varjo is using a “video see-through” display instead. Here, video cameras capture live footage of the world in front of you and feed it into a processor, where it is mixed with the virtual content and displayed back. Varjo recently announced a partnership with Japanese-based chip company Socionext to provide the graphics processor for its headset. The most important, thing, says Konttori, is that it starts processing the data as soon as the photons hit the sensor: “That’s really critical, because one of the last things you would want is that the world is lagging behind what you’re doing.”