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Apple and Meta headsets could face big challenges: sticker shock

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Meta, the parent company of Apple and Facebook, plans to release a mixed reality headset next year that can finally deliver on the industry’s promise to transform head-worn devices into the next big shift in personal computing.

But there is one potential stumbling block. It’s a sticker shock.

The best-selling virtual reality headset, the Meta Quest 2, retails for $400 and will account for 78% of the early 2021 VR market, according to IDC. Consumers looking for next-generation technology will have to spend many times that amount.

Meta’s upcoming high-end headset, codenamed Cambria, is expected to cost at least $800, the company said earlier this year. Apple’s unannounced device could reportedly cost thousands of dollars. This is a heavy load for products in categories that have not yet become mainstream. Only 11.2 million VR units shipped last year, according to IDC. Apple sells that many iPhones every few weeks.

To expand the market, Meta and Apple will have to convince consumers that investing in more advanced systems is worthwhile. The companies are reportedly betting on a new technology called pass-through mixed reality, which requires better displays and more processing power.

If pass-through mixed reality works as advertised, the VR headset can also act as a set of augmented reality glasses, increasing the potential for applications and real-world use.

With existing VR devices, the experience is limited to what you see on your headset display. In pass-through AR, powerful cameras on the outside of the VR headset capture video of the outside world and send it to two or more displays in front of the user.

This allows developers to use mixed reality to overlay real-world videos with software and graphics.

Mixed reality advocates say they will eventually be able to condense the technology into lightweight glasses with clear lenses. But it’s for the future.

A pass-through approach has emerged as a short-term option as optical transmission displays are not ready for prime time. The problem today is that passthrough mixed reality requires many expensive components and powerful headsets, limiting the size of the market.

In addition to advanced cameras, passthrough devices require depth sensors that can capture detailed video and measurements of the user’s surroundings. It also needs to track the user’s eyes so as not to waste invisible power-generating graphics. It also requires powerful processing capabilities and software to reduce latency so that what the user sees inside the headset is not delayed or blurred.

Most important is the high-resolution screen, which needs to be much denser than a smartphone display, as it is very close to the user’s eyes. According to CounterPoint Research, smartphone screens average about 550 pixels per inch, while mixed reality devices require displays with about 3,500 PPI.

Meta and Apple haven’t released any headsets yet, but some devices currently on the market support passthrough mixed reality. Due to the lack of processing power, the experience tends to be limited to black and white or low quality video.

A few weeks ago, I was able to test a headset from Varjo, a Finnish company co-founded by former Microsoft and Nokia exec Urho Konttori. Last year Varjo released his XR-3. It offers full-color, low-latency pass-through mixed reality. Expensive, heavy, and business friendly. It costs $6,495 to purchase and about $1,500 to rent for a year.

Playing with the XR-3 felt less lonely than with other VR headsets.

Varjo’s XR-3 headset


With the press of a button, you could access virtual worlds and summon games that took up your entire field of view. You can use a virtual computer monitor to display Windows applications within a virtual world.

I was also able to interact with the world around me through Varjo’s pass-through view. In the demo, Varjo placed a life-size car model in space. I was able to walk around it, examine its internals, and discuss what I was seeing with someone not wearing a VR headset.

What impressed me most was that with the passthrough turned on, I could continue my conversation with the person next to me, or find a chair to sit in, interacting with the real environment around me. This is not possible with existing VR technology and requires you to remove yourself from the physical world.

Contori told me that was one of his main goals. The company hopes to nearly mimic the viewing quality of what he calls the “holy grail” of mixed reality, the “human eye.”

“One Consistent Scene”

The XR-3 has two 2880 x 2720 pixel displays, and the company uses eye tracking to focus processing power and provide better image quality where the user’s eyes are looking.

The key is that “you can merge the physical reality around you with virtual reality objects and make it into a single coherent scene, where you no longer distinguish what is real and what is virtual.” You won’t be able to,” Konttori said. “Part of this evolution is that at some point you will find that the fidelity of this experience is the same as what you perceive with your own eyes.”

However, to use the XR-3, you’ll need to cable it into a powerful gaming PC. Meta and Apple are focused on developing devices that don’t require a connection to another computer. Konttori knows it will be difficult for his startup to compete with the world’s biggest tech companies, but he said Meta and Apple still face challenges.

This is because it is very difficult to develop consumer-friendly products with appropriate weight and power consumption. Especially if you’re shipping millions of products at a low cost.

“Companies are focused on a consumer-like experience, which means they are still driven by size, weight, ergonomics and cost,” said Konttori.

Attendees wear HTC Corp. Vive virtual reality (VR) headsets at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, Calif., USA on Monday, June 5, 2017.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Apple is notoriously secretive about its product roadmaps, especially when it comes to new categories. The company has invested heavily in virtual reality research and development in its technology development group and has acquired several start-ups that specialize in mixed reality technology.

According to Bloomberg and The Information reports, Apple plans to launch ski goggles with a powerful homemade chip similar to those found in MacBook laptops and a higher-resolution display than anything currently on the market. We are developing a mixed reality headset similar to

The headset will reportedly support passthrough video and offer games and other applications. At one point, Apple was aiming for at least a 4K TV-like resolution per eye in its first headsets.

Apple has not confirmed plans to release a mixed reality headset and has not responded to a request for comment on the matter. In an interview with Chinese media earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook hinted that something was on the way.

Meta says Project Cambria, which supports color passthrough, will be released later this year. Based on the published renderings of the device, it also looks like ski goggles. This includes pancake optics, a type of lens that doesn’t need to be fine-tuned like other VR lenses.

Meta said in May that the Cambria will cost “significantly more” than its $800 price tag.

Passthrough technology is not yet on the market, and when it does, it will be very expensive, but the metaverse developers are rallied in favor of it. The main alternative, optical-based mixed reality, uses transparent displays built into lenses to integrate computer graphics with the real world. Microsoft’s Hololens and Magic Leap use optical waveguides, a type of transparent display.

Transparent displays are also expensive and present their own challenges. Not good in bright sunlight, current products have poor image quality and text can be blurry.

Varjo is betting on passthrough technology, which Konttori says is the better approach in large part because it’s fully digital and gives developers more control.

“It becomes computable,” Contri said. “It becomes a tool for artificial intelligence to join your world and enhance your vision and intelligence, allowing you to distort the world in the least or greatest way possible.

He expects the pass-through to be “the approach to victory for a very long time.”

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