Comfortable, good-looking VR headsets might not be available in the near future, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be available at all. According to VentureBeat, Facebook is researching a holographic optics design that would slim down present-day VR headsets from their bulky, brick form to something more like a thick pair of glasses. This echos back to early May 2020 rumours that Facebook’s Oculus division was making a slimmer Quest VR headset, only this glasses-like VR headset prototype is much small and much lighter.
Facebook discussed its research in a Siggraph 2020 paper, “Holographic Optics for Thin and Lightweight Virtual Reality,” detailing how it’s been experimenting with what it calls “pancake optics.” It’s a type of design that combines several thin layers of holographic film to make a VR display only a little bit thicker than most of today’s smart phones – 9mm to 11mm. The prototype design also uses a laser projection system (similar to classroom projectors that display images on a screen or wall) and directional backlights to display either 2D or 3D imagery.
The prototype VR glasses also have a comparable resolution to the Oculus Quest, 1,200 by 1,600 pixels (16-inches by 21.3-inches), and a field of view that’s either a 93-degree circle or a 92-by-69-degree rectangle, according to VentureBeat. The VR glasses would only weigh 10 grams, while the Oculus Quest weighs 571 grams, or 1.26 pounds.
The VR glasses are still a long way from becoming more than just a proof of concept, but Facebook’s proposed deign seems pretty convincing. As the company details in its research blog, most VR displays use a refractive lens composed of a thick, curved piece or glass or plastic, which is why VR headsets are so bulky. There needs to be the proper amount of space between the glass and the eyes for an image to appear correctly. But using holographic optics in a lens slims down that space because instead of moving light directly through a conventional lens, a holographic lens will bounce the light back toward the display panel before bending it like a lens. If you have a debit or a credit card with a rainbow-esque logo that pops out at you, that’s what Facebook is trying to do with its holographic lenses.
Currently, the research team has been able to produce a brief, proof of concept video, which is highlighted in the blog, but the images are only green. Facebook says it’s “currently working on achieving full colour on the smaller research prototype.” No point to using a VR headset if everything you see is coloured like The Matrix code.
Facebook is careful to note that its work at present is “purely research,” but holds a lot of promise for what VR headsets could look like in the future. If you want to take a deep dive into the research itself, you can read the full paper here. If at any point VR headsets’ form factor does morph into a sick pair of Ray Bans, I imagine they’d be prohibitively expensive to start, but hey, at least VR as we know it now would become cheaper.