Meta’s quest for photorealistic virtual reality

Mark Zuckerberg trying out a prototype helmet. Picture: provided

When the social media giant Facebook changed its name to Meta Last October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was trying to stay ahead of his company’s biggest problems.

Facebook the user base was in decline and Apple Privacy Changes exerted a negative pressure on its advertising revenue.

The rebranding was a way to steer the company away from Facebook — and all the connotations that name carries — and toward the “metaverse,” a term science fiction writer Noel Stephensen coined to describe a virtual reality (VR) world in the early 1990s.

At the heart of this shift is Reality Labs, Meta’s own research and development team working on technology to literally reads minds in order to develop its augmented and virtual reality equipment.

Last week, a panel at Meta’s Reality Labs briefed the media on how its teams were trying to solve the “Turing Visual Test.”

It’s the phrase used internally as shorthand for photorealism because Meta’s stated goal is to display fully immersive virtual environments that are indistinguishable from reality.

“Screens that match the full capacity of human vision are going to unlock some really important things,” Zuckerberg said.

“The first is the realistic sense of presence – it’s the feeling of being with someone or in certain places as if you were physically there.”

Zuckerberg is pioneering the next generation of video calling in which mixed or virtual reality devices make you feel like you’re in a room with another person, or at least their “photorealistic avatar.”

In its future ‘metaverse’, you and your family or colleagues will share the same virtual space while being geographically isolated.

Workplace technology company Cisco is trying to make the same vision a real product with its Hologram video calls – technology that, in its attempts to make another person feel “closer”, actually makes them feel more isolated and ethereal than the video calls we are used to making every day.

For Meta, the main problem with modern virtual reality is its fidelity and is mainly a hardware problem.

“Virtual reality introduces a host of new problems that simply don’t exist with 2D displays,” said Reality Labs chief scientist Michael Abrash.

“[Things like] vergence accommodation conflict, chromatic aberration, ocular parallax, pupil swim – and before we even get to that there is the challenge that our displays must fit into compact, lightweight headsets and operate for long periods of time without batteries in these helmets.

The Starburst prototype is an impractical proof-of-concept device. Picture: provided

As such, developing photorealistic VR headsets isn’t just about shrinking existing screens to fit a headset.

An interesting problem is concentration.

Your eyes naturally focus differently on objects depending on how close or far they are.

This isn’t a problem for 2D screens at a fixed distance like on your phone or laptop, but in VR it means a greater need to dynamically render all objects based on where your eyes are looking.

Meta’s solution is to test using varifocal lenses that automatically adjust when viewing in virtual worlds.

Likewise, modern VR headsets aren’t particularly bright, so Meta has started looking for ways to go beyond LEDs and is trying to make small, inexpensive lasers that will dramatically increase the brightness of headsets.

Meta still has a long way to go before it can fit all of its photorealistic fixes — like lasers and varifocal lenses — onto a single headset.

In fact, Meta should delay its next generation helmets and goggles for at least a few more years.

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