In an unusual exercise, Meta (the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) recently opened the doors to its own R&D labs. During a video conference organized personally by Mark Zuckerberg with several of the group’s engineers, the social networking giant presented a series of prototypes of virtual reality helmets – each more futuristic than the other.
The exercise comes as investors worry about the fortunes that the Menlo Park group has swallowed to develop technologies for the metaverse, a hyper-realistic digital world that Meta is betting on for its future growth. The group’s Reality Labs division lost $10 billion last year. And in the first quarter, the group made an additional 3 billion there, versus barely 700 million in revenue… At the same moment that the group’s growth slows sharply, Meta must rest assured of the credibility of its bet.
“Virtual Turing Test”
He is very ambitious. The goal of the R&D teams is to create display systems at the same level as human vision. Internally, engineers talk about the “virtual Turing test” – a reference to the famous test devised in 1950 to assess the ability of a computer program to pass a human. Likewise, Meta wants its headphone users not to be able to tell if they are seeing a screen or the reality of the outside world.
“It’s a lot more complicated than projecting a realistic picture on a computer or TV screen,” Mark Zuckerberg says. Human vision includes many parameters that must be reproduced if we are to trap the user’s eye and brain. So the Meta teams developed several prototypes – each attempting to solve one of several challenges of the “Virtual Turing Test”.
Resolution and varifocal
The first device Mark Zuckerberg took out of his bag was codenamed “Butterscotch”. It aims to significantly increase the number of pixels in the screen. Ideally, there should be an 8K resolution, across the entire field of view of the VR headset – much wider than a TV screen.
Meta Teams managed to double the resolution of the Quest 2 (the headset currently on sale), to come close to the human retina. “We can line up the 20/20 line of the optics diagram [ceux utilisés par les ophtalmologues, NDLR] ”, Mark Zuckerberg rejoices. But the engineers had to sacrifice half the field of view for this, and the device is still heavy and bulky.
The second prototype is called “Half Dome” and addresses the issue of depth of field. This is fixed in helmets currently on the market. “In the real world, the lens of our eyes acts like a lens and constantly changes shape to focus on what we’re looking at,” Mark Zuckerberg says. After experimenting with mechanical varifocal screen systems in 2017, the Meta moved to an electronic version, which is simpler and more powerful. Thus, the helmet is able to track the gaze and adapt the depth of field according to where it is being worn – like a camera’s autofocus.
3D image of the lens
A third model, the Starburst, for its part, wants to offer brightness and contrast as good as natural light — meaning a hundred times more than what current helmets do. The prototype is so heavy that it has handles.
To solve the main problems with size and weight, Meta has one last game: the Holocake, a helmet that looks a lot like a simple ski mask, in which light does not pass through the lens, but the hologram of the lens. The only problem with this holographic system is that it requires a reliable and above all cheap laser to power it.
In the end, all these solutions should be combined into one device. Meta has also designed this helmet of the future, which is called “Mirror Lake.” “Nothing in physics is stopping us from getting there,” Mark Zuckerberg boasts — even if he’s eager to make an appointment. Not to mention that in addition to the screen, it will be necessary to solve many other problems at the level of sensors, internal computing power, battery …
The first devices to take advantage of Meta Labs innovations, according to Mark Zuckerberg, will likely be expensive for the general public and intended for professionals. That will already be the case with a helmet called “Project Cambria,” expected later this year, which is aimed at companies and will be the first to include a gaze and face tracking system in order to allow avatars to make eye contact and communicate with facial expressions. One small step for metaverses, one giant leap for Facebook engineers.
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