Meta Deals Look at what the Quest 2 could follow as it pursues a VR future

This story is part of Making the metaverseCNET’s exploration of the next stage in the evolution of the Internet.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg holds a sizable virtual reality headphones called Butterscotch. It is a prototype, used only for research. But it’s part of the puzzle that Meta is trying to solve in order to make her plans for the metaverse a reality.

The image resolution in Butterscotch is about two and a half times better than the Quest 2, the VR headset that Meta sells to consumers and is critical to making virtual worlds appear more realistic. In a video Speaking at the conference, Zuckerberg said the resolution is good enough for people to see objects clearly from 6 meters away.

An eye chart shows how the image brightness differs from different VR headsets

Meta said the Butterscotch prototype headset’s resolution is high enough to read the 20/20-line vision line on an eyechart in VR, better than the Quest 2 and Rift headsets.

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Creating more realistic VR images, Zuckerberg said, will make people feel like they’re physically with another person, even if they’re not in the same room. However, a more realistic sense of presence takes more than just improving the resolution in VR headsets, he said.

“Being able to express yourself in as immersive and realistic a way as possible is a very powerful thing,” he said. “We are now in the midst of a major step forward towards realism.”

Meta has big plans for the metaverse, virtual spaces for work, play and socializing. But the company, formerly known as facebook, has a long and daunting to-do list to tick off before it can achieve that goal. Headsets need to be able to track movement well and be more comfortable if Meta wants more people to buy these devices.

Meta hasn’t said how many headsets it has sold, but it doesn’t make a profit from its metaverse business and doesn’t expect it to for a long time. In the first three months of this year, Meta’s metaverse company Reality Labs lost $2.96 billion, Meta said in a earnings report† The company is making a long-term bet on what comes after the mobile internet and is pinning its future to the metaverse. Zuckerberg has been trying to get people interested in VR for years after the company bought VR headset maker Oculus for more than $2 billion in 2014.

Zuckerberg’s ambitious take on the metavers sounds like it came straight out of science fiction. He wants people who put on his headsets to feel like they are in the physical presence of a loved one or co-worker. In the future, he says, people may not even need to buy anymore TVs

“If you have a good mixed reality headset or augmented reality glasses, then that screen or TV on your wall could just be a hologram,” he said.

That vision is still a long way off. While Meta has improved its VR headsets, using them takes you to cartoonish virtual spaces that feel more like video games than the real world. The company has tried to clear the list of projects — Meta reportedly scrapped a smartwatch and delayed the release of AR glasses — to cut costs. It still plans to release the wrist wearables and AR glasses to consumers. And it still needs to be addressed harassment and privacy in virtual worlds, issues Meta has struggled to fight on her social media sites.

Still, improving the screens in VR headsets may tempt people to try out more virtual spaces.

An illustration of an idea Meta has for mixed reality glasses.

Meta-researchers showed what mixed reality glasses might look like, but said it was just an idea at the moment.

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Mixed reality glasses

During the video conference, Zuckerberg and Meta employees showed an illustration of Mirror Lake, one of the company’s most ambitious projects. The headset resembles ski goggles and combines the physical and digital world, a technique known as mixed reality.

Mixed reality glasses, such as Mirror Lake, are also in their early stages. Mirror Lake is just a concept and Meta hasn’t built these glasses yet, so they don’t know if their idea will work.

It could be a step towards sunglasses-like AR headsets, which overlay digital information on real-world scenes. Meta wants to eventually bring these AR products to market, but it’s still a lot of hardware to carry around outside of a home.

Meta hopes Mirror Lake will have a retina-resolution-level display with HDR, eye-tracking, a method of creating multiple eye focal points, prescription lenses, and holographic lenses that use lasers to create 3D images.

The headset may eventually include exterior displays to show a wearer’s eye and facial expressions while wearing the glasses, a research idea Meta has previously presented and Apple is also reportedly working on .

A wall of prototypes and glasses of VR headsets

Meta has created many different types of prototypes over the years to improve the technology in VR headsets.

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New visual technology in a range of experimental headsets

Meta also showed off Holocake 2, the thinnest and lightest VR headset that can play PC VR games. The prototype could help the company build smaller VR headsets in the future. And by reducing the weight of a headset, people can spend longer in virtual worlds.

Looks like the design of Microsoft‘s HoloLens 2, the device uses holographic lenses, which simulate the optics of a regular lens, but are flatter than the curved lenses used in VR devices like the Quest 2. Most VR headsets have thick lenses That’s why the front of the device looks so heavy, Zuckerberg said. Instead of sending light through a thick lens, Holocake 2 sends light through a hologram of a lens. Meta also reduced the distance between the eye and the VR screen to reduce the bulk of the headset.

However, Holocake 2 requires lasers for its holographic lens optics to work, and finding out-of-the-box lasers that would work in headsets is still difficult. Using holographic optics can reduce the bulky design of the VR headset, allowing Meta to add other technology, such as more cameras, eye-tracking, and a type of lens that could make VR more comfortable.

To improve VR, Meta is applying a test that evaluates whether what’s displayed in a VR headset can be distinguished from the real world, said Michael Abrash, head of Meta Reality Labs Research. The company calls this the Visual Turing test, a reference to English mathematician Alan Turing, who developed another test in the 1950s to determine whether a computer can think like a human being.

No VR technology has passed the Turing visual test, Abrash said. While VR creates a sense of presence, people know that what they’re watching is virtual and not real.

Meta outlined four obstacles to creating better displays: resolution, focus, distortion and high dynamic range, used to improve the brightness and contrast of an image.

One problem is that VR headsets have significantly less color gamut, brightness and contrast than TVs, laptops and Phonessaid Abras.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg holds up a prototype headset called Starburst

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg holds up a prototype headset called Starburst with a clear bulb.

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Zuckerberg held up a prototype VR headset called Starburst and noted that the device contains a clear lamp. He called Starburst “wildly impractical,” but said researchers are using the heavy headset to improve future devices.

Meta also developed another prototype called Half Dome, which includes a varifocal lens that can help people’s eyes focus better in VR, making nearby objects look sharper. People who used this type of lens experienced less fatigue and blurred vision. They were also able to more easily identify smaller objects, read text in VR, and react more quickly to environments.

Even after years of development, Half Dome isn’t ready for consumers as Meta makes sure eye tracking and other parts of the device work properly. The technology needed to create varifocal work is still hard to get in a consumer headset.

“As hard as it is to build the first version of something, it can often be even harder to get it into a shipping product,” Zuckerberg said, adding that he “will be coming soon” with “optimistic” consumer units.

Later this year, Meta is expected to release a new, more expensive VR headset called Project Cambria, the company’s first VR headset with eye-tracking. After that, it’s unclear when or if any of these next-gen display technology will be incorporated into a headset. What is striking is that Zuckerberg and Abrash recognize that current VR screens still do not compete with the quality of 2D screens on a TV or smartphone.

If they want VR to be more than a novelty, it’s a problem they need to solve.

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