The company formerly known as Facebook is going to spend $10 billion this year on research and development in the field of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, including computerized 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 built in its labs.
Zuckerberg has bet the future of the social networking company he founded based on virtual reality, which immerses users in a computer-generated world, and augmented reality, which places computer-generated objects over the real world. Last year, the company changed its name to Meta to emphasize the company’s new emphasis on the metaverse, a virtual world in which Zuckerberg imagines people will spend more and more time — ideally through advanced computer glasses.
If Zuckerberg succeeds in making head-worn computers mainstream, Meta would have a new revenue stream from hardware sales and operate its own hardware platform, making it less susceptible to platform changes from other companies. For example, during his latest earnings call, Meta said recent privacy changes Apple made to the iPhone may include: it cost $10 billion in lost revenue this yearbecause it hinders the company’s ability to target ads to precise audiences.
The VR market is small at the moment and there are questions about how big it could get. Meta currently dominates headset sales, with a current Quest 2 of $299, accounting for 78% of all headset sales in 2021, according to an estimate by IDC. But there were only 11.2 million VR headsets sold total during the year — a much smaller number than smartphones or PCs.
Meanwhile, investors are skeptical of Meta’s pivot away from its core advertising and apps business. The stock has fallen more than 53% so far in 2022 amid fears of growing costsslight growth forecasts, increased competition from TikTok and effects of Apple’s iPhone privacy change that hampered mobile ads†
Monday’s demonstration did little to assuage those fears – Meta’s stock closed more than 4% on Tuesday, despite a broader rally in technology stocks. (U.S. markets were closed Monday due to the June holiday sighting.)
Meta is developing next-generation virtual reality screens designed to give users a realistic enough experience to feel like they are in the same room with other virtual people, Zuckerberg said during his demonstration. Current displays have low resolution, exhibit 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 during a media call about the company’s virtual reality efforts. “Just instead of looking at them on a screen, you feel like you’re there.”
“The problem today is that the vibrancy of screens that we have now compared to what your eye sees in the physical world is an order of magnitude or more,” Zuckerberg said.
Meta has regularly shown her progress in recent years by working on virtual reality headsets and augmented reality glasses to partners and the press, encouraging investors to see the project as worthwhile and well-paid developers and executives with experience in VR to help recruit and AR.
In these roundtable presentations, Meta regularly shows off unfinished prototypes for use in research, which is unusual in consumer electronics. Gadget companies like to finish products and find out how they will be manufactured before talking about them to the press. For example, Apple, which is working on its own headsets, never shows off prototypes.
“These prototypes are custom and custom models that we built in our lab, so they’re not products ready to ship,” Zuckerberg said.
These were the prototypes he showed:
Sandwich. Butterscotch was designed to test higher-resolution screens that have pixels small enough that the human eye cannot tell them apart. Butterscotch has developed a new lens from Meta that limits the headset’s field of view, making it possible to present fine text and display greater realism.
However, Meta says the prototype was “nowhere near shippable” because of how heavy and bulky it is — plus, the prototype still has exposed circuit boards.
Half dome 3. In any case, Meta has been working on Half Dome headsets since 2017 to test some sort of display that can shift how far the focal point is from the headset’s optics. Half Dome’s technology, Meta says, could improve resolution and image quality enough for users to turn giant computer monitors into a headset to work on. The latest version, 3, replaces mechanical parts with liquid crystal lenses.
holocake 2. Meta says it’s the thinnest and lightest VR headset it’s made, and it’s fully capable of running VR software when connected to a PC. However, it requires specialized lasers that are too expensive for consumer use and require additional safety precautions.
“In most VR headsets, the lenses are quite thick and need to be placed a few inches from the screen so they can focus properly and direct the light into your eyes,” Zuckerberg said. In Holocake 2, Meta uses a flat, holographic lens to reduce mass (in addition to the lasers).
Starburst. Starburst is a research prototype targeting high dynamic range displays that are brighter and show a wider range of colors. Meta says HDR is the one technology most associated with added realism and depth.
“The goal of all this work is to identify which technical paths will allow us to meaningfully improve in ways that are beginning to approach the visual realism we need,” Zuckerberg said.
Mirror more. Meta also showed a concept design called Mirror Lake for a ski goggle style headset. Mirror Lake is designed to combine all the different Meta headset technologies it develops into a single next-generation display.
“The Mirror Lake concept is promising, but right now it’s just a concept with no fully functional headset yet built to conclusively prove the architecture,” said Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Meta Reality Labs. “But if it works, it will be a game changer for the visual VR experience.”