Image: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Warner Bros.
Current VR headsets still have many shortcomings. This is normal and part of the evolution of the technology.
The latest virtual reality wave started rolling about ten years ago, but despite rapid technological advances, VR headsets still feel like they’re in the early stages of their development history.
We still have to fiddle with cables (Playstation VR 2), carry large, uncomfortable boxes on our faces that weigh half a kilo or more (Meta Quest 2), mount tracking accessories on the walls (Bigscreen Beyond), or take out a loan before buying a headset (Varjo XR-3). Each of these devices does something particularly well, but none of them satisfies in every way.
Year almost perfect VR headset? There is no such thing, and there are good reasons for that, having to do with physics and the (tremendously high) expectations placed on such devices.
For the average consumer, the ideal VR headset has to be able to display console-level graphics, but it also has to be wireless, produce very little heat, and be so light and small that you can barely feel it on your nose. All for $300 or less. A technical impossibility.
A game of tradeoffs
Optics, performance, weight, form factor, efficiencyand, last but not least, price are all factors that engineers must weigh during the design process. In part because these factors are often mutually exclusive.
If you try to improve things in one direction, you have to compromise in other important areas.
A recent example: The use of pancake lenses can significantly reduce the form factor of VR headsets. The downside is that these lenses absorb ten times as much light, requiring brighter displays and more efficient batteries in standalone headsets, and therefore introducing new challenges. Every win comes with a loss.
VR hardware design is a game of tradeoffs. In the end, the best VR headset is not the one that does one or two things very well, but the one whose technical drawbacks add up to the least amount of compromise to the experience.
When I recently heard my MIXED colleagues lamenting the imperfections of today’s VR headsets on our German podcast, I was reminded of a scene from the movie Dead Poets Society.
In the scene in question, student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) describes truth as a blanket that never fully covers you, so no matter how you tuck it in or tug at it, you’re bound to feel cold (you can watch that scene we Youtube).
Of course, unlike truth, VR headsets represent a technological imperfection, not a principled one. They may one day be perfect, or at least eliminate the major drawbacks of today’s technology.
This is going to take a long time. VR headsets have far more complex technological requirements than any consumer electronics device to date. Some building blocks need to be polished, others have yet to be invented. Watching this evolve and see the blanket grow is incredibly exciting and one of the reasons why, imperfections or not, virtual reality still fascinates me after ten years.
If you would like to learn more about the technical design hurdles of VR/AR headsetsI recommend Matthew Ball’s excellent essay Why VR/AR Gets Farther Away as It Comes Into Focus.