Apple and Meta headsets could face a tough challenge: sticker clash

Apple and Facebook’s parent company Meta are expected to launch mixed reality headsets in the coming year that could finally deliver on the industry’s promise to make head-worn devices the next big change in the world. personal computing.

But there’s one major potential catch: sticker shock.

The best-selling VR headset, the Meta Quest 2, sells for $400 and accounted for 78% of the nascent VR market in 2021, according to IDC. Consumers who want the next-gen technology will have to spend many times over.

Meta’s next high-end headset, named Cambria, is expected to cost at least $800, the company announced earlier this year. Apple’s unannounced device could cost thousands of dollars. That’s a heavy load for products in a category that has yet to become mainstream. Only 11.2 million VR units were shipped last year, IDC said. Apple sells that many iPhones every few weeks.

To expand the market, Meta and Apple will need to convince consumers that more advanced systems are worth the investment. The two companies are reportedly betting on a new technology called mixed reality passthrough, which requires better displays and more processing power.

If passthrough mixed reality works as advertised, a VR headset would also work as a set of augmented reality glasses, enhancing the possibilities for real-world applications and usage.

With existing VR devices, the experience is limited to what is displayed on the headset screen. In passthrough AR, powerful cameras on the outside of a VR headset take video of the outside world and send it to two or more screens, one in front of the user’s eyes.

This allows developers to play with mixed reality, overlaying software or graphics over the real-world video just outside.

Mixed reality believers say we’ll eventually be able to condense the technology into a lightweight pair of glasses with clear lenses. But that’s for the future.

The passthrough approach is becoming the preferred option in the near term, as optical transparent displays are far from ready for prime time. The problem for today is that passthrough mixed reality requires a lot of expensive parts and a powerful headset, which limits the size of the market.

In addition to advanced cameras, passthrough devices need depth sensors that can take detailed video and measurements of the user’s surroundings. They should also follow the user’s eyes so as not to waste energy by generating graphics that will remain invisible. And they need powerful processing capabilities and software to reduce latency so that what the user sees inside the headset isn’t delayed or blurry.

Most important is the high resolution screen which must be much denser than a smartphone screen because it is so close to the user’s eyes. Smartphone screens average around 550 pixels per inch, but mixed reality devices require screens around 3,500 PPI, according to CounterPoint Research.

While Meta and Apple haven’t released their headsets, a few devices currently on the market support passthrough mixed reality. Experiences tend to be limited – black and white or poor quality video – due to a lack of processing power.

A few weeks ago, I was able to test a headset from Varjo, a Finnish company co-founded by Urho Konttori, a former Microsoft and Nokia executive. Last year, Varjo launched the XR-3, which offers low-latency color passthrough mixed reality. It’s expensive, cumbersome, and meant for business. It costs $6,495 to buy or around $1,500 to lease it for a year.

While playing with the XR-3, I felt less isolated than with other VR headsets.

Varjo’s XR-3 Helmet

Varjo

I could access a virtual world with the press of a single button, and I could display games that occupied my entire field of vision. I could use virtual machine screens displaying windows applications inside the virtual world.

I was also able to interact with the world around me through Varjo’s passage view. In the demo, Varjo placed a life-size car model inside the space. I was able to walk around it, inspect its interior, and discuss what I was seeing with someone who wasn’t wearing a VR headset.

Most impressively, when passthrough was enabled, I could interact with the real environment around me, carry on a conversation with the person next to me, or find a chair and sit on it. This is not possible with existing VR technology, which requires you to remove yourself from the physical world.

Konttori told me that was one of his main goals. The company wants to almost mimic the display quality of the “human eye,” which it calls the “holy grail” of mixed reality.

“One Cohesive Scene”

The XR-3 has two 2880 x 2720 pixel displays, and the company uses eye tracking to focus its processing power to deliver better image quality where your eyes are looking.

The key is “to be able to merge the physical reality around you with the virtual reality objects and make them into a single cohesive scene, where you can no longer distinguish between what is real and what is virtual”, has Konttori said. “Part of that evolution is that you can see that at some point, the fidelity of that experience is equal to what you would perceive looking at it with your own eyes.”

However, to use the XR-3, you must be tethered by cable to a powerful gaming PC. Meta and Apple are focused on developing devices that don’t require connecting to a separate computer. Konttori knows it will be difficult for his startup to compete with some of the biggest tech companies in the world, but he says Meta and Apple still face challenges.

Indeed, developing a user-friendly product with the right weight and power consumption is very tricky, especially when it comes to cutting costs and shipping millions.

“Companies are focused on consumer-like experiences, which means they’re still really driven by size, weight, ergonomics perspective, as well as cost,” Konttori said.

A participant wears an HTC Corp virtual reality (VR) headset. Vive during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, United States, on Monday, June 5, 2017.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Apple is notoriously secretive about its product roadmap, especially when it comes to new categories. The company has invested heavily in VR research and development in its technology development group and has purchased several startups specializing in mixed reality technology.

According to reports from Bloomberg and The Information, Apple is developing a mixed-reality headset that looks like ski goggles with a powerful local chip, similar to the one that powers its MacBook laptops, and higher-resolution screens than what is. currently on the market.

The headset would support video passthrough and offer games and other apps. At one point, Apple was aiming for at least a 4K TV-like resolution per eye for its first headset, because anything less could trick users into seeing individual pixels, The Information reported.

Apple has not confirmed plans to release a mixed reality headset, and the company did not respond to a request for comment on this story. In an interview with Chinese media earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook suggested something was afoot.

Meta said Project Cambria, with color passthrough support, is expected to be released later this year. From the renders of the device that have been made public, it also looks like a pair of ski goggles. It will include pancake optics, a type of lens that doesn’t need to be calibrated as finely as other VR lenses.

Meta said in May that Cambria’s price would be “significantly higher” than $800.

Although passthrough technology hasn’t really hit the market yet, and it will be quite expensive once it does, metaverse developers are embracing it. The main alternative, optics-based mixed reality, uses transparent displays embedded in lenses to bring computer graphics into the real world. Microsoft’s Hololens and Magic Leap use optical waveguides, a type of transparent display.

Transparent screens are also expensive and present their own challenges. They’re not good when used in daylight, and current offerings can suffer from poor image quality and blurry text.

Varjo is betting on passthrough technology and Konttori says it’s the best approach largely because it’s all digital, giving developers more control.

“It becomes calculable,” Konttori said. “It becomes a tool for artificial intelligence to participate in your world, enhance your eyesight or your intellect, and you can warp the world in the smallest or the largest way possible.”

He expects passthrough to be “the winning approach for a long, long time.”

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