Today at Slush 2017, Finnish VR startup Varjo Technologies is announcing that their first formal prototype headset will be shipping within the next month, as well as unveiling their collaboration efforts with a number of new development partners. While we don’t often cover these smaller companies, there are a few notable elements to Varjo’s endeavors. First is the hardware itself: Varjo’s VR headset incorporates two displays where the inner central region has very high resolution and pixel density, surrounded by a coarser lower resolution peripheral region. The second is the niche: Varjo is focusing solely on the professional market.
The headset – and the company itself for that matter – was outed this past June when Varjo exited their startup stealth period, and at that time they gave private demoes to press and analysts with a modified Oculus Rift (CV1). In that configuration, the Oculus display provided the 100 degree FOV peripheral and two OLED microdisplays, courtesy of Sony DSC-RX100M4 compact cameras, provided the in-focus 20 degree region.
Scientifically, what Varjo is adopting is a form of foveated projection – mimicking the human vision’s out-of-focus peripheral and in-focus center. Foveation is widely considered to be one of the critical steps to the next generation of VR headsets, as matching the human eye’s own capabilities is, if executed correctly, a more direct means to having high pixel density HMDs without all of the manufacturing challenges of building a continuous high density HMD, and without the massive rendering workload required to fill such an HMD. Various GPU vendors have already been working on foveated rendering, and now with Varjo’s prototype we’re going to start seeing forms of foveated projection.
For the new “20|20” prototype, when it comes to the high density zone of the HMD, users will be looking at a pair of 3000 ppi displays, each measuring 0.7 inch (diagonal) and offering a 1920 x 1080. Refresh rates are currently at 60Hz, though Varjo noted that 120Hz rates are currently undergoing testing, seeing it as a reachable goal. As for latency, Varjo notes that the displays have microsecond switch times and thus generally have low latency.
The two displays are complemented by an optical combiner and gaze tracker so that the focused regions are in line with a user’s gaze. As a whole, Varjo have taken to calling these technologies a “Bionic Display,” though to be clear the phrase is sometimes used metonymically for the headset itself. While not present on the Oculus based prototype, their headset has external cameras to allow for mixed reality (MR) and augmented reality (AR) functionality via video see-through, as opposed to the optical see-through of HMDs like HoloLens.
Taking a step back, what Varjo is going for is essentially removing the screen-door effect of current VR HMDs via by offering an area of very high pixel density. But the tradeoff with that pixel density is the limited size and FOV of the OLED microdisplays, and thus foveated projection, with Varjo filling in the rest of the FOV with a lower resolution. Executed correctly, this means that the high resolution display is always aligned with the center of the user’s FOV – where a user’s eyes can actually resolve a high level of detail – while the coarser peripheral vision is exposed to a lower pixel density. As mentioned earlier, in principle this allows for the benefits of high resolution rendering without all of the drawbacks of a full FOV high density display.
However this is not to say that Varjo’s approach isn’t without its own challenges. Such a solution only works if A) the displays are visually seamless, B) the displays have synchronized high refresh rates, and C) eye-tracking ensures that the focused high density region is always at where a user’s gaze is, all elements that Varjo is aiming for. These become especially important once video see-through based AR/MR is in the picture.
The other side benefit is that using off-the-shelf-ish Sony microdisplays would significantly reduce costs and man-hours, particularly for prototyping as the retrofitted Oculus demonstrates. So in those senses the idea of mimicking human vision is deeply intertwined with the design and engineering choices, marketing appeal of human-eye resolution notwithstanding.
Another thing to note is that the Sony microdisplays are around $850, which by itself is more than many consumer HMDs already on the market. The Varjo headset is intended for the professional market and will be priced that way; Varjo described a typical user as using dual Quadro P6000s, which is not only an immense amount of graphical horsepower but also around $10000 for the graphics cards alone.
Varjo headset prototype at GTC 2017 Europe, featuring Jen-Hsun Huang (Varjo Instagram)
In practice, positioning for the professional market requires a lot of collaboration in regards to workstation applications, certification, drivers, and the simple calculus involved in fitting a specialty technology into a workflow. Which is why the second part of today’s announcement mentions a number of development partners; Varjo lists 20th Century Fox, Airbus, Audi, BMW, Technicolor, and Volkswagen as headliners. And on the GPU side, Varjo is involved with AMD and NVIDIA, though no further details were given. But even at a glance there are interesting avenues to pursue, such as LiquidVR on AMD’s side, and Holodeck or VRWorks on NVIDIA’s.
Details in general were limited, but this is to be expected. After all, formal prototypes are just now finding its way into development partners’ hands: the Alpha Prototype headset, shipping with Unreal and Unity plugins, is slated for select partners before 2018, while Beta Prototypes are specified to begin shipping in Q1 2018 to partners involved in design, engineering, simulation, and entertainment. Varjo is still a developing company, and by venture capital standards they certainly are, having received a round of Series A funding just two months ago.
It’s worth noting that Varjo positions itself as a VR hardware and software company, and is now describing their headsets more as a vehicle for Bionic Display. Now that the “20|20” headsets have successfully courted a number of interested companies, Varjo can look more broadly in both productizing a headset and planning an ecosystem that it could be successful in.
Varjo expects to launch its first commercial headsets in 2018.