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The three crucial VR headset developments you don’t want to miss

How will we know when VR has truly ‘made it’? By most measures, this will be when the technology has cracked the mass consumer market: when it can be found in homes and public spaces across the world.

As we’ve explored before however, we’re a long way off from that point. To  get there, we’ll need to see a marked jump in the level of immersion a user can experience in VR.

Advances in capture technology will play a crucial part in this, as will our ability to create narratives that work for the medium. Of equal importance - and arguably the most noticeable piece of the puzzle for users - will be advances in display technology. 

We’ve spoken previously about how nailing HUD performance will be a key factor in the mass adoption of VR.  

We’re already seeing the beginnings of this: sales of headsets are predicted to account for the majority of revenue generated for the VR gaming industry in 2019, and consequently companies are pouring money and development resource into improving display tech. 

It’s worth looking then at what some of these advances in headset technology will look like in the year ahead. So without further ado…

Standalone headsets

Up until relatively recently, VR headsets have been one of two things: connected to your PC for a powerful (and expensive) experience, or integrated with your mobile phone for a cheaper (but much lower quality) experience.

Standalone headsets are somewhere in between. With their built-in screens, batteries,  and improved specs, they offer the untethered experience of mobile VR headsets with a much-needed boost in power. But that said, they’re currently still nowhere near as powerful as a PC VR headset like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

All that may be set to change in 2019.

Our eyes are looking towards the Oculus Quest, due for release in spring. This headset is anticipated to obliterate many of those barriers: for the relatively affordable price of $400, this standalone headset will offer a similar experience to the Oculus Rift  - without the IR sensors or requisite connection to a gaming PC or smartphone.

The standalone nature of the device means it won’t be as powerful as a modern Intel or AMD processor, but Oculus have focused on addressing some core challenges to make this headset appealing for VR gaming; namely wireless functionality, 6-degrees of freedom (6-DOF, for 360-degree movement) and bundled controllers.

And Oculus isn’t the only company looking at untethering the VR user. The HTC Vive wireless adapter released to wide acclaim in 2018, enabling VR gamers to ditch the bulky cable and roam free. 

Eye-tracking

Eye-tracking is one of the most exciting areas being explored as VR develops. It relates to the ability to quickly and precisely measure the direction a person is looking while using a VR headset. 

While it has a range of potential applications in VR headsets, from varifocal displays to improved social VR avatars, the most-discussed context for eye-tracking is foveated rendering.

Foveated rendering reduces the computational power required for displaying complex VR scenes. The name derives from a small pit at the center of the human eye ( the ‘fovea’),  densely packed with photoreceptors, which gives us high resolution vision at the center of our field of view. In contrast, our peripheral vision is relatively poor at picking out color and detail, but better tuned to spot movement. VR headsets could mimic this to spend more computational power on the things we’re looking at, and less on the stuff we’re not - but first they need the ability to know what we’re focusing on. 

The technology to achieve this already exists, but is set to advance apace in 2019. 

VR developer Pixmax is due to release an eye-tracking module imminently for their ultra-wide FOV, 8K and 5K headsets. Improvements in specific eye-tracking components are expected to be announced as the year progresses, although it will take a while until these developments reach the consumer (a good example is Synaptics, which released the first dual-display 2K resolution combined with foveal transport support last August, keeping images in the direct line of sight.)

Beyond foveated rendering applications, one developer to watch is Visual Camp, who offer the power to navigate and make menu selections with the eyes, alongside foveated rendering for better performance. 

Eye tracking and headsets
 

Bigger field of view and higher resolutions 

Improvements in eye-tracking - and in particular in foveated rendering - will open the door to another holy-grail of VR: higher-resolutions. 

That’s because foveated rendering will be key to making the resolution jump affordable.

System architects will be able to to use lower-cost graphics cards to draw the greatest detail only where you’ll notice it —  in front of your eyes. 

Clawing back some of the cost of putting a higher resolution display inside a VR headset by using less expensive graphics cards, may be absolutely critical for manufacturers to consider this move. 

In terms of where we might see these higher resolutions coming from, the previously-mentioned 8K Pixmax headset comes with a whopping dual-resolution of 3840x2160, and its 5K Plus with dual-resolution of 2560x1440. 

Bearing in mind the new HTC Vive Pro has dual 1440x1600 resolution - which in itself is a not-to-be-sniffed-at 78% increase over the resolution of the existing Vive - and you can see that Pixmax are really working on the frontlines of what’s currently possible with this technology. 

And when it comes to field of view (FOV), it’s a similar story. The Pixmax headsets boast an impressive 200-degree FOV - a full 90 degrees wider than the  Vive Pro’s 110-degrees.

What does it all mean?

For VR to go mainstream and capture the mass consumer market, there are number of technological tentacles that need converge. Everything from the quality of the capture and display tech, to understanding how stories can be told effectively in VR.

The developments in headset technology we’ve looked at are a sucker along the tentacle of display technology.

Virtual reality headsets that enable more immersive gaming experiences - larger FOVs, better frame rates and better resolution - will play a huge part in the growth of gaming VR, which in turn will tip the scales a little further towards the mass adoption of virtual reality.