Last Monday, I walked three blocks uphill on Mason St in San Francisco to the Fairmont Hotel to demo a stealth product that had been touted to me as one of the biggest advancements in XR tech this side of Magic Leap.
As it turns out, the trek was worth the hike—Varjo’s Human-Eye Resolution technology made me realize something I’d only known in a general sense prior: current visual fidelity in VR/AR has a long way to go. Varjo’s soon-to-launch headset catapults us a decade into the future in terms of what we’re actually able to see in immersive reality.
So what is Varjo? It’s a Helsinki-based company (“varjo” is “shadow” in Finnish) that’s been in stealth until now, working to develop a 70 megapixel solution for XR (by comparison, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive run about 1.2 MP). The team sports a pedigree including Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia, and Nokia, and for the past eight months, they’ve been working to develop a project codenamed, “20|20,” a prototype demo based on proprietary technology that will live in all Varjo-branded products.
What’s it like to see in 20/20 in VR? It’s pretty astounding. The rug looks fluffy and inviting. Metal glints in light. You can follow individual grains in wood.
You can read writing from across the room. In this reviewer’s opinion, one of the biggest frustrations in the current VR landscape is the difficulty posed in reading text. Varjo solves this problem.
Part of the issue in producing such incredible resolution is the amount of computing power it takes to maintain it realtime, without lags in latency. Inspired by the saccade model of the eye during their research, the team at Varjo realized that the human-eye actually doesn’t see the world in “human-eye resolution” across the entire field of view. Instead, it only sees accurately at 2° in the center field of vision (at around 100 px/°).
In the periphery, the eye actually only takes in about (1 px/°). So, the Varjo display was built as a gaze-based, foveated-rendering system—in other words, what you’re looking at is in crystal clarity, while the surrounding area remains at “normal” VR resolution. This allows it to provide the best possible resolution for the human eye without any bugging or juddering given current processing capabilities.
“Visual fidelity is paramount when you want to use XR for things that somehow aim to simulate the reality,” said Urho Konttori, CEO and founder of Varjo Technologies. “Until you are at a point where fidelity is at human-eye level, you cannot experience things in the same way as if you were there.”
And right now, though we might not realize it, the visual fidelity in existing headsets, according to Konttori, leaves a whole lot to be desired if we’re really going to try to replicate reality in XR.
“Today’s VR is resolution-wise somewhere between ‘not allowed to drive a car’ and ‘legally blind,'” said Konttori. “Imagine sitting at the back of a classroom in today’s VR hoping to read text that is written on the blackboard. For an interior designer, this means that she cannot see how textures actually play out at the end of the room. For industrial designer of a car, she wants to see beautiful contours of the car, instead it is lego, lego, lego. If you want to see sharp defining reflections on the hood, analyzing those from diffrerent angles, you see just a blur—not the defining line. For all of us, if you want to use a virtual desktop, you really need the resolution.”
In 3D, the concept of design takes on a whole new meaning; it’s not simply UX or UI as presented on a flat page—it’s literally spaces we inhabit and the objects we interact with. That’s why the ability to see clearly in them isn’t just a nifty update to Konttori—it’s the baseline for how human beings will engage with creativity.
“Creative tools are where we now see the highest potential in VR,” said Konttori. “The VR-native designers of the future will have a whole new perspective on buildings, with better symbiosis of form and function; you can live in the designs while making them. This transformation won’t be just about the resolution, but about what that means to creative processes.”
Varjo’s first product is a high-end, enterprise headset—intended to help companies with a need for precision to build, collaborate, and refine in an optimal setting. The product will go into beta in the coming months in prep for official shipping in late Q4 of this year. The first headset has not been designed with the kind of compromises that come with creating a consumer headset. Instead, Varjo first intends to partner with select independent software vendors (ISVs) and companies whose need for visual fidelity is most pressing—whether that might exist in architecture, design, simulations/training, or otherwise.
“If you design an experience for today’s VR, it will be leading you to a UX paradigm path that will need to be completely rethought and redesigned once higher resolution is there,” said Konttori. “With Varjo, you can start working now on the end-game rather than redesign the UX every two years when resolutions improve on the headsets. We want to be that North star that helps companies aim their design towards the right goal from day one.”
As the company grows, Konttori expects the costs to drop, and a consumer launch is in the works.
But in terms of future developments, this reviewer is most excited about the mixed reality headset the company is working to build. More in the vein of Intel’s Alloy than Microsoft’s HoloLens, the headset will use Varjo’s advanced visual fidelity to commingle the real and digital worlds in an unprecedented way using on-board cameras to represent the outside world. In one example, filmed through direct capture, I saw a digital lamp illuminate a wall in the real world—in realtime, with realistic fluctuations in color and shading. That headset is in a much earlier stage than the VR headset coming out later this year, but it helps give a sense of why the team at is so excited about the applications of their research and development.
It’s still early, but when I start to think about all the avenues of professional application and creative expression this solution could unlock, it seems to me that Varjo might actually do the unthinkable: singlehandedly launch us into a new era of XR.
For developers and independent software vendors interested in seeking access to Varjo’s Beta program, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.