Facebook has shown off a new proof-of-concept virtual reality headset, and it has a completely different design than most other VR devices on the market today. Instead of a bulky contraption that covers up the top half of your face and has to be strapped to your head, this proof-of-concept headset looks kind of like a pair of large sunglasses that can sit comfortably on your ears.
Yet Facebook is billing this new device as not a pair of augmented reality glasses, as common conceptions of AR devices go, but a legitimate VR product. They’re very thin, with a display thickness of less than 9mm, and Facebook claims they have a field of view that’s “comparable to today’s consumer VR products.” Here’s a top-down view:
The proof-of-concept glasses aren’t just thin for looks, though — they also apparently beam images to your eyes in a way that’s different than standard VR headsets on the market today. I’ll let Facebook’s research team explain one of those techniques, called “holographic optics:”
Most VR displays share a common viewing optic: a simple refractive lens composed of a thick, curved piece or glass or plastic. We propose replacing this bulky element with holographic optics. You may be familiar with holographic images seen at a science museum or on your credit card, which appear to be three-dimensional with realistic depth in or out of the page. Like these holographic images, our holographic optics are a recording of the interaction of laser light with objects, but in this case the object is a lens rather than a 3D scene. The result is a dramatic reduction in thickness and weight: The holographic optic bends light like a lens but looks like a thin, transparent sticker.
The proof-of-concept headset also uses a technique Facebook calls “polarization-based optical folding” to help reduce the amount of space between the actual display and the lens that focuses the image. With polarization-based optical folding, “light can be controlled to move both forward and backward within the lens so that this empty space can be traversed multiple times, collapsing it to a fraction of the original volume.”
This GIF from Facebook helps visualize how both techniques work together:
These glasses are just a proof-of-concept, though, so it’s unclear if they’ll ever come to market. “While it points toward the future development of lightweight, comfortable, and high-performance AR/VR technology, at present our work is purely research,” Facebook’s research team writes in its blog post.
Many companies are circling around the idea of glasses-like AR/VR headsets that combine the best of both technologies into a single device, but it usually ends up as a bulkier VR-centric headset that uses outward-facing cameras to also perform light AR. Intel and Microsoft, both of which use the phrase mixed reality to describe devices like the HoloLens, have been investing in this idea for some time.
But more companies are now working behind-the-scenes to make a smaller, truly hybrid device a reality. Apple has reportedly been working on something like this for years, and Google just today bought AR glasses company North, an acquisition that may allow the company to revive its dream of a consumer Google Glass-style heads-up display.
While we can’t be sure if any of the tech giants will release combination AR/VR glasses, the proof-of-concept Facebook is showing off could offer a glimpse at what such a device might look like at some point in the future.
Check out this whitepaper from Andrew Maimone and Junren Wang on the Facebook Reality Labs team if you want to learn more about Facebook’s proof-of-concept.