Space & Innovation

Stealthy VR Startup Develops Ultra-High Resolution ‘Bionic’ Headset

The Finnish startup Varjo promises a technological advance that enhances the VR experience with 70 times the clarity of current headsets.

But don't ring the death knell just yet. A European startup company, coming out of stealth mode this week, claims that it has solved one of VR's most persistent bugaboos — low resolution images. By creatively hacking existing display technologies, engineers at the Finnish company Varjo say they can deliver optical resolution up to 70 times the clarity of current VR headsets.

That would be a quantum leap for the VR experience, where advances in display tech tend to come slowly and incrementally. If Varjo's solution proves viable, it could potentially reverse the fortunes of the entire industry.

It works like this: Rather than jacking up the resolution of all imagery in the user's field of view, Varjo's “bionic display” concentrates its firepower on just the thing you're looking at. This produces an effect known as foveated vision, in which the center of your vision is crystal clear, while your peripheral vision remains blurred or pixelated. Mother Nature has been hip to this trick for a while — it's how certain birds of prey can literally see for miles — and the human eye uses a similar technique.

“Bionic display is inspired by the human eye,” Varjo founder and CEO Urho Konttori said in an email. “We only see accurately at two degrees in our center field of view. We see at 100 pixels per degree in the center, but in periphery we see only one pixel per degree.”

To replicate this organic function of the eye, the Varjo system actually uses two displays. The center of your vision is rendered at high resolution, while the periphery is displayed at standard VR resolution.

“Then we change projection of the high density display so that it follows your gaze,” Kontorri said. “Wherever you look at, that's where the high density displays projection is.”

Kontorri and his team visited the US earlier this week, demonstrating an early prototype of their system. Patched together from an existing Oculus Rift headset, the demo model adds a pair of high-density screens and some cleverly arranged mirrors inside the goggles. The end result, according to reports, is 70 megapixels of resolution in the center of the field of vision, compared to about 1.2 megapixels everywhere else.

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The improvement is such that users reported being able to read small signs and individual documents in VR environments — something existing virtual reality systems generally cannot handle.

The prototype demo is strictly proof-of-concept, Kontorri said. The company plans to build their own custom VR goggles — called "20/20" for now — starting this year. The final product will incorporate improved eye-tracking so that the system can better follow the user's gaze. It will also smooth out the transition zone between high-density view and standard resolution.

“We are a product-making company,” Kontorri said. “The technology is not for license, but will be available in partner devices shipping this year. The final product that we will sell will be available next year.”

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That first wave of “20/20” products is aimed squarely at the high-end professional market — architects or engineers who need high-density resolution for immersive VR-design programs. These units will likely cost thousands of dollars, but Varjo hopes to roll out less expensive consumer models down the line.

“Technology trickles down fast,” Kontorri said. “Depending on the type of consumer, I would imagine that we are talking two to three years into the future from our first product.”

Whether this new technology will take hold remains to be seen, but industry reports suggest that Varjo — Finnish for “shadow” — represents a formidable collection of talent, with former executives, engineers, and product managers from Microsoft, Nokia, and Intel.

VR companies may not be making the sales that they want, but they are getting a clearer picture of what improvements need to be made. Ironically enough, the most critical improvement is… a clearer picture.

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