VR, the way it was supposed to be. Varjo is an XR startup from Finland ready to change the world of human+computer, taking us one step closer to fully immersive experiences that are hard to tell from reality.
This time last year, I tried what was then a very bulky, heavy, tethered VR headset prototype from the finish startup company Varjo. It had many visible Torx screws, a thick collection of cables, no head-strap so you had to hold it pressed towards your face if you wanted to see anything…
Regardless of all the above, last year, I was still blown away. I was seeing through the looking glass. I had peered into the future. I was excited, to say the least.
Throughout 2018 I’ve had my eyes peeled at varjo.com, on their Instagram, their twitter. I’ve been waiting for updates. Like a fanboy. Super excited and bullish on what I had seen in late 2017.
Nothing really happened. I was not even sure if they had stopped trying. There a couple of interesting posts during the year, but still I was almost worried. Until October and the announcement of their series B led by Atomico. That was the tipping point in my new excitement. This must mean something big was in the works.
Then come December 5th, 2018. I realized that they yet again are having a private demo room at Slush 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. I write to see if I can have a demo this year. I explain I’ve got a demo last year and that I’m excited to see what has progressed since last time. To my surprise & delight, one of my friends responds to my email. The email comes from a Varjo employee email address. That’s when I get even more excited, I now have friends working at Varjo. My fears around them not making progress where suddenly taken back even further. Series B, friendly faces, things are getting exciting.
My friend responds that I can have a demo if I show up around 5.45pm at the end of their day because they had been so busy. I’m just keen to get a slot, so I’m in.
Varjo is trying to solve something really really hard. They are trying to get VR to a place where we have retina resolution. Where pixels disappear, and screen door effects go MIA. Their approach is to mimic human eyes. The call it the Bionic Display. Mimicking the way the eye works, with an extremely high definition display in the center of your field of view, then they have a separate screen rendering the rest. This ultimately on paper is supposed to create an experience so crisp that it will be hard to tell pixels from real life.
Varjo is a finish deep tech company, set their target on the premium/enterprise market for VR/XR. With creative studios, designers and digital producers as their main initial target.
Having almost lost all my faith. I now found myself in the same demo room as a year prior. There is less of a prototype vibe in the room, and a more polished selected feeling. There are other people getting demos, engineers and marketers, as well as set designers and one of the founders from Varjo.
They have two demo areas sections set up. The first of the demos I try is showing off the inside/outside of a new Audi.
For someone that has spent a lot of time in VR, strained eyes and bad resolution is a daily problem especially in certain apps and experiences. Strapping the latest product over my head, a few things have happened since last year.
First, it’s light, it’s comfortable, it’s bigger than your normal Vive or Rift, but weight wise feels on par. It has one or two cables coming down your tether line. It’s Steam VR lighthouse/controller compatible. There is a large cushion that makes it fit nice and comfortable on the face. Well built in ventilation to make sure long time use is not going to be a problem.
Then there is the screens and lenses. If you ever been inside a VR experience, regardless of the tier of the headset you have seen pixels or what is commonly known as — screen door effect. That also results in things like, it’s hard to show small text or details because we don’t have enough resolution per degree. Let me just say that, with this latest iteration, Varjo has solved that. The entire center of the display, the main focal area, is completely crisp. It’s so crisp and intact that I have a hard time understanding if I’m looking at a screen or reality. The car demo has some tells, but that comes down more to the technical nature of the demo and the render rather than the headset.
I’m at this point just standing still and my jaws dropping to the floor, repeatedly saying the F-word. This headset and this technology will deeply change a lot of things. Atomico has made a smart move.
The second demo I get to experience is a photogrammetry capture of the Fire temple in Japan. Because it’s a 3D capture of the real world, and also lit and done in such a way that the graphics are so photorealistic, it’s honestly getting harder and harder to tell the real world I just came from apart from this new virtual representation of a real-world location. They simulate a 24h solar cycle in 60 seconds, that makes the shadows and sun move in a sped up way, now it feels magical, like I got superpowers, and at all this time, I’m still having that experience where in my main focal area, everything is so high definition that I can’t see pixels. Only this beautiful temple and its gardens. It’s hard to explain when you have not seen it for yourself. It’s truly magical.
Because of my excitement, I get switched to try another photogrammetry capture scene. This being of an artist studio. A studio that has many thousand things in it, loads of details. I just got to spend a couple of minutes in this demo, but I think I could easily spend hours exploring this one studio.
Puzzle adventure games will be so much more immersive in the next decade, to the degree where people will probably get lost in these worlds. At this point, I don’t want to take the headset off. This is a powerful experience. And it’s probably going to be one of the most controversial things in the near future. HMD will be so damn good, that we won’t be wanting to take them off.
One of the most impressive things in this experience is a bookshelf, and in that bookshelf there is a lot of things, one shelf, in particular, has a bunch of CD’s on it, and never before have I been able from a meter or so away being able to read on the back of anything in VR. Now I’m perfectly fine reading the titles of the back of a CD, from 1,5 meter away, and it’s as clear as in the real world, if not clearer. I’m now at the point where I’m totally forgetting I’m in a 5×5 meter demo room at one of the largest tech conferences in the world. In a room with other people. Because this experience has transported me into a well lit, messy artist studio, with thousands of things to look at and explore.
At this point, it’s time to switch headsets because I’m getting to try one more demo. This other headset is the latest of their hardware. It also has eye tracking. This is a demo from a control tower room of an airport. This demo is also utilizing eye tracking. I’ve never calibrated for eye tracking or used it in a VR headset before, the process is seamless and takes less than 30 seconds. After I’m done looking at some dots free-floating in space I’m being teleported to this control room at an airport. I got full visibility of all the gates and the runways. Whatever I look at in the scene shows an interaction on it when as soon as I gaze at it.
I can look at any of the planes on the runway, and intuitively it gives me more detailed information about the plane. If I look at a gate it gives me more information about the gate. I can combine gaze and head movement to do more complex and fast chains of interactions. Without having to move a pointer or use my hands, I can combine my eyes, move my head and ultimately use my hands all together like in the real world, but with superhuman powers. I can see eye-tracking in combination with gestures becoming the gold standard for effortless interactions in VR.
The eye tracking is good, apparently I have strong eyes one of the developers points out, asks if they could borrow my eyes. Not sure if he wants to cut them out right on the spot or if they want to build a new eye-tracking model based on my eye movement. Looking at technical specifications, the eye-tracking is supposedly running at 100Hz, hence the reason for being so damn smooth and fast.
At this point, I’m 15 minutes into these demos, and from someone that have hosted more than 300 hours of VR demos, I know how it is having people in these experiences for the first time. I’ve never seen anyone as excited as myself, that’s a testament to my experience and excitement.
Varjo is on schedule to release their hardware in early 2019. They are currently doing a US roadshow, where they are showing of their headset to anyone that have shown interest. This is a premium headset, not for the everyday consumer, yet. However, having seen this now, there is nothing that will stop this from becoming a mainstream technology that will find it’s way into all HMD, including Oculus and HTC future product updates. Not taking away from the absolute insane achievement performed by the finish underdogs. This points towards that innovation do not have to come from the silicon valley, and I think we will see more and more of these breakthroughs in technology from outside the valley.
I’m applauding the entire Varjo team for their combined achievements on their product outcome. It’s a testament to what can be achieved under great leadership and good teamwork. And Finland sure has a couple of seats at the global roundtable of innovation.