Meta (META) CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting his company’s future on the metaverse. And part of that multi-billion dollar wager will require Meta to pump out VR and AR headsets so powerful they can fool users into thinking computer-generated images are real.
In a virtual roundtable with reporters last week, Zuckerberg acknowledged it will take years for compact headsets to display photorealistic images. Still, Meta is making progress toward that goal, Zuckerberg said.
“We have this long-term roadmap to basically solve all these different challenges, which we think are going to be critical to delivering this really rich sense of presence,” Zuckerberg explained. “We’ve solved some of the challenges already, and for others, there’s still a lot of work to do in building these devices.”
Those challenges include ensuring that images in Meta’s headsets look clear and in-focus, with realistic-looking colors. If Meta can do all of that, then its decision to transform itself into a metaverse-first company might truly pay off. If it can’t, though, the company formerly known as Facebook could fall apart.
Sharper displays an prototypes galore
Meta is pouring money into its metaverse efforts, spending $10 billion in 2021 on the project alone, up from $6.6 billion in 2020, and $4.5 billion in 2019. What’s more, Zuckerberg expects to continue plowing cash into the business over the next three to five years.
And what is that business exactly? The metaverse is loosely defined as a series of interconnected online worlds. One day, metaverse evangelists promise, you’ll be able to interact via AR and VR headsets, as well as smart displays, intelligent windows — really any kind of screen. But Meta is starting out with just AR/VR headsets for the time being.
Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, says it will likely take 10-15 years before its investments fully pay off and the technology behind both the metaverse and its headsets reach their full potential. And getting there will require Meta to create new hardware that goes beyond its current headsets’ capabilities.
During the roundtable last week, Zuckerberg showed off prototypes the company has developed and continues to work on. The CEO says Meta is working to improve image resolution, focus, and brightness; it’s also working to minimize distortion.
“The human visual system is very complex, and it’s deeply integrated. So you know, just seeing a realistic looking image isn’t enough to make you feel like you’re really there,” Zuckerberg said. “To get that feeling of immersion, you need all of the other visual cues. So this is a much more complex problem than just displaying a realistic-looking image on a computer screen or TV.”
Of course, it helps to have a realistic image. But modern headsets simply don’t offer the kind of image fidelity that can rival something like your average 4K TV. That’s because the closer you get to a display, the easier it is to see its pixels. And attaching a screen to your face is pretty close.
The result, when it comes to most modern headsets, is the so-called screen door effect, where you see lines between pixels that can make it look as though you’re seeing an image through a screen door. As a result, on-screen content loses its details and fine text becomes difficult to read.
Meta, however, has created a prototype called Butterscotch that Zuckerberg says can reach resolutions high enough so you could read the bottom line on a virtual eye chart. The Meta Quest 2, its current headset, comes nowhere near that kind of clarity. But Butterscotch is still a large, unwieldy headset that’s not ready for the consumer market.
Beyond Butterscotch, Zuckerberg detailed prototypes including Meta’s Half Dome line of headsets that improve the overall focus of content you see in VR and AR, and a prototype called Starburst that the CEO says improves color quality by raising overall display brightness.
While the latest Half Dome prototype fits into a normal-sized headset package, Starburst is a massive beast requiring the user to hold the headset up to their face using two handles and two large fans to keep it cool.
While Meta is clearly investing big with prototypes like these, it’s not the only company positioning itself for metaverse supremacy. Apple (AAPL) is reportedly building out its own VR/AR headset that could launch later this year or in early 2023. Microsoft (MSFT), meanwhile, has its own Hololens mixed reality headset.
It’s also still unclear how much uptake there will be in VR/AR headsets among consumers in the future, and whether the metaverse will pan out exactly as Meta hopes. Some experts have said the early hype around the concept and lack of game-changing products have turned consumers off.
Zuckerberg, however, seems dead-set on seeing his vision through. Now we’ll just have to wait to see if it pays off.
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