The company formerly known as Facebook announced in February that it expects to spend at least $10 billion this year on research and development of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, including computer-assisted glasses or headsets.
On Monday, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed how much progress the social media company has made toward that goal by revealing many of the unfinished headset prototypes the company has been building in its labs.
Zuckerberg has staked the future of the social networking company he founded on virtual reality, which immerses users in a computer-generated world, and augmented reality, overlaying computer-generated objects over the real world.
Last year, the company changed its name to Meta to emphasize the company’s new focus on the Metaverse, a virtual world where Zuckerberg envisions humans will spend increasing amounts of time – ideally through advanced computerized glasses.
If Zuckerberg manages to make head-worn computers mainstream, then Meta would have a new revenue stream from hardware sales, and it would control its own hardware platform, making it less vulnerable to platform changes from other companies. For example, during its most recent conference call, Meta said the recent privacy changes Apple made to the iPhone could cost $10 billion in lost revenue this year because it hampers the company’s ability to target ads to specific audiences.
The VR market is currently small, and there are questions about how big it could get. Meta currently dominates headset sales, with the currently $299 Quest 2 accounting for 78% of all headset sales in 2021, according to an IDC estimate. But over the year, just 11.2 million VR headsets were sold overall — a far lower number than smartphones or PCs.
Meanwhile, investors are skeptical about Meta’s departure from its core business of ads and apps. The stock is down more than 53% so far in 2022 on fears of rising spending, modest growth forecasts, increasing competition from TikTok, and the impact of Apple’s iPhone privacy change that hampered mobile ads.
Monday’s demonstration did little to allay those fears — Meta’s stock closed down more than 4% on Tuesday, despite a broader rally in tech stocks. US markets were closed Monday for June 16 holiday observation.
What Zuckerberg showed
Meta is developing next-generation virtual reality displays that are designed to give users a realistic experience, making them feel like they’re in the same room with other virtual people, Zuckerberg said during his demonstration. Current displays have low resolution, display distortion artifacts, and cannot be worn for long periods of time.
“It won’t be long before we can create scenes in perfect fidelity,” Zuckerberg said when speaking to media about the company’s virtual reality efforts. “Only instead of looking at them on a screen, you’ll feel like you’re there.”
“The problem today is that the vividness of the screens we have now is an order of magnitude or more different than what your eye sees in the physical world,” Zuckerberg said.
In recent years, Meta has regularly shown its progress in working on virtual reality headsets and augmented reality glasses to partners and the press, to encourage investors to consider the project worthwhile and to help recruit highly paid developers and executives with experience in VR and AR.
In these roundtable presentations, Meta regularly shows unfinished prototypes for use in research, which is unusual in consumer electronics. Gadget companies want to finalize products and figure out how they’re made before talking to the press about it. Apple, for example, which is working on its own headsets, never shows prototypes.
“These prototypes are custom and bespoke models that we built in our lab, so they’re not ready-to-ship products,” Zuckerberg said.
Here were the prototypes he showed:
butterscotch Butterscotch was designed to test higher-resolution displays whose pixels are so small that the human eye cannot distinguish them. Butterscotch developed a new lens from Meta that narrows the headset’s field of view, allowing it to display fine text and render it more realistically.
However, Meta says the prototype was “nowhere near deliverable” because it’s so heavy and bulky – plus the prototype still has exposed circuit boards.
half dome 3. Meta has been working on half-dome headsets since at least 2017 to test some sort of display that can shift how far away the focus point of the headset’s optics is. With Half Dome’s technology, Meta says, resolution and image quality could improve enough to allow users to create giant computer monitors in a headset to work with. The latest version 3 replaces mechanical parts with liquid crystal lenses.
holocake 2 According to Meta, this is the thinnest and lightest VR headset the company has made and that it’s capable of running any VR software when connected to a PC. However, it requires specialized lasers that are too expensive for consumer use and require additional safety precautions.
“On most VR headsets, the lenses are pretty thick and they need to be positioned a few inches away from the display so they can properly focus and direct light directly into your eyes,” Zuckerberg said. In Holocake 2, Meta uses a flat holographic lens in addition to the lasers to reduce mass.
starburst. Starburst is a research prototype focused on high dynamic range displays that are brighter and show a wider range of colors. According to Meta, HDR is the only technology most associated with added realism and depth.
“The goal of all this work is to discover what technical avenues will allow us to meaningfully improve in ways that are beginning to approach the visual realism that we need,” Zuckerberg said.
mirror river. Meta also showed off a concept design called Mirror Lake for a goggle-style headset. Mirror Lake is designed to combine all of the different meta-headset technologies it is developing into a single next-gen display.
“The Mirror Lake concept shows promise, but for now it’s just a concept with no fully functional headset yet to be built to definitively prove the architecture,” said Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Meta Reality Labs. “But if it works, it will fundamentally change the visual VR experience.”