Since its announcement in 2017, Varjo has become one of the most discussed VR startups on the planet -- fundraising over $46M -- and 20 months later, the Finnish company's flagship headset, the VR-1, is finally hitting the market.
And there's quite a bit to say about the headset. It sports the best visual fidelity of any headset on the planet. It has a proprietary eye-tracking solution with sub-degree accuracy. It's a modular system that is intended to evolve as software and hardware improves. It carries a $5,995 price tag. And leaving aside deep tech: it's a downright beautiful object, born of Nordic design, with a sleek reflective front plate. In other words:
"We wanted to make an uncompromised product," said Varjo Chief Product Officer (CPO) Urho Konttori in an interview with the author. "That's something that's been true from day one to the end."
From the beginning, explained Konttori and Varjo Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Jussi Mäkinen explained, the VR-1 was envisioned as a product that would be built from the ground up to be the absolute best in its class, never using cheaper materials or development timelines that would cheapen the end product. Unlike most other headsets on the market, the VR-1 is an enterprise product with no plans for a consumer launch. The intended target includes companies in AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction), industrial design, virtual production, healthcare, and training and simulation.
The past two years have allowed Varjo to work directly with Early Access partners to refine the VR-1 into something that directly addresses customer needs.
"One of the crucial things for Varjo in our development was this early access program that we had with our [pilot] companies," Mäkinen said. "It really shaped the product, working side-by-side with companies like Audi, Volkswagen, and Saab...to really understand the market. We wanted to make the ultimate VR product for professionals without any sacrifice in quality."
Human Eye Resolution
Trying the VR-1 is an experience akin to trying VR for the first time. That's due in large part to its standout feature: visual fidelity. The Varjo Bionic Display sports more than 60 pixels per degree (PPD), a 20x improvement on any other existing headset -- a feat achieved through innovation in both hardware and software. The VR-1 combines a 1920x1080 low-persistence micro-OLED and a 1440x1600 low-persistence AMOLED.
At one point in the demo, I was literally positioned in front of an eye test.
"As you can see, it's as accurate as it is in real life," Konttori told me. "You should be able to read everything on the top of this chart."
As it turned out, I could read all but the bottom line.
The clarity here is striking, but it's more than just definition. The dual lens design is capable of producing minimal color aberrations/reflections and no ghost rays. And the results are clear -- in my demo, I visited an artist's studio (captured using photogrammetry), the main gallery of a museum, a control tower of an airport, and many other locales -- all of which were so robustly textured and colored they felt somehow realer than real life. When visiting a Japanese shrine at night, the blacks of the sky and shadows didn't show any of the normal pixelation that occurs in dark areas. The detailing and reflections of cars were so accurate I thought I was going to see my virtual self reflected.
As would be expected, all this new data increases the computational load, but the demos I experienced ran off of an Nvidia GTX 1070, a mid-range graphics card by way of VR capability. That's possible because Varjo offers its own optical fiber cable, one of the many aspects of the hardware that separate it from existing headsets.
The foveated rendering solution I first experienced in 2017 was still the case here -- meaning the full resolution is only available in the viewer's main field of view -- but unlike the prototype I tried in 2017, this time I only noticed the differentiation during movement and when I looked at objects at a very close distance. When standing still, the blending is so good between periphery and main view that the differentiation melts away entirely.
The other critical innovation from Varjo is their 20/20 Eye Tracker, an eye-tracking algorithm that offers sub-degree accuracy. For perspective, "one degree" is the size of your index finger nail at arm's length.
So what does that look like in practice? During my demo in the flight control tower, I was equally able to select buttons on the module in front of me and select planes all the way down the runway with startling ease.
"It's so accurate you can use it for user interactions," Konttori said. "In training is where it excels, because now the trainer can see what the trainee is looking at. You can run stupendously cool analytics on the data seeing how the progress is being made by the trainee. You can also do automatic scenarios where you need to be looking at certain things in a certain order."
In the original development of the VR-1, the foveated rendering solution depended on precise eye-tracking. It wasn't until they started working with customers that they fully grasped the scope of what they'd created.
"Very early on we understood that the eye tracking was very important to us," Mäkinen said. "We believe the future of VR will advance in many ways with very precise eye-tracking. In the beginning we had this idea of a foveating display, so you had to know where the eye was looking. What happened is that we made an optical breakthrough -- we brought the focus area to much bigger than [any existing solution]."
The conversation around eye tracking technology and data harvesting -- who collects it and what can be done with it -- is an important one, particularly in light of the data scandals of 2018. Konttori explained that, because this type of data is so potentially valuable to customers, Varjo is putting those decisions in their hands.
"We are basically not taking any stance [on data mining] -- it's application-specific," Konttori said. "[Customers] can do what they please -- we don't have limitations like other eye trackers. You can use it for any commercial or consumer interaction, whatever you want."
As an added benefit, the Eye Tracker also automatically adjusts interpupillary distance (IPD) so that each user's experience is tailored to their own eyes, rather than relying on a physical slider.
The aesthetic experience of the VR-1 is also notable, with a clean minimalism and reflective front plate that render it instantly recognizable among a lineup of other headsets.
"The front plate was really difficult to make but it's iconic," Konttori said. "[The headset follows] Nordic design language and minimalism -- you don't see any of the tracking dots, but they all work perfectly."
More than just making a statement, the front plate is also intended to humanize a technology that has the potential to alienate users from other people sharing the space.
"We had these ski masks in the office, and we thought this kind of mask of reflection in front would make it more human; it would feel more human to the people looking at it from the outside," Mäkinen said. "Varjo is all about mixing the real and the virtual together, so we wanted it to blend in with reality. It definitely wasn't easy to pull off."
In fact, design decisions here were more than just pleasing aesthetics, they're functional decisions around the evolution of the product. Back in 2017, Varjo showed off its proposed Augmented/Mixed Reality solution. While that's not part of the current VR headset launch, Konttori explained that it's still very much a core aspect of the company -- one informed by conversations with Early Access companies.
"This has been made to be upgradeable," Kontorri said. "It really came down to the fact that many companies...said they have a real business need now for human-eye resolution, they said, 'Please bring that to the market as fast as you possibly can.' Then we decided to separate the mixed reality from [the VR-1] that could be integrated later. That way you only pay for what you need."
A Mixed Reality Add-on is currently in the works, and Varjo is planning an announcement around it later this year. And for the foreseeable future, any new modifications will be able to integrate into the base VR-1 product.
"We made it future-proof," Mäkinen said.
The VR-1 platform runs on Steam (I used Vive lighthouses and controllers in my demo), and supports most major professional software such as Unreal, Unity, Autodesk VRED, PREPAR3D, ZeroLight, and VBS Blue IG. An SDK is available for integration to custom software solutions.
Today, the headset begins shipping to 34 countries in North America, Europe, and Hong Kong for $5,995, as well as a required $995 service license (mandatory only for the first year) to ensure that customers have all their support needs met directly from the source. The product will only be available to businesses and academic institutions. Varjo is also hiring many different roles, which can be viewed on the official website.
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