Facebook has launched a new proof-of-concept virtual reality headset that has a completely different design than most other VR devices on the market today. Instead of a bulky device that covers the upper half of the face and has to be strapped to the head, this proof-of-concept headset resembles large sunglasses that fit comfortably on your ears.
However, Facebook does not bill this new device as augmented reality glasses, as is common with AR devices, but as a legitimate VR product. They are very thin and have a display thickness of less than 9 mm. Facebook claims they have a field of view that is "comparable to today's VR products for consumers." Here's a top-down view:
However, the proof-of-concept glasses not only look thin, they also seem to shine images in your eyes in a way that differs from the standard VR headsets currently available on the market. I'll have the Facebook research team explain one of these techniques called "holographic optics":
Most VR displays have a common viewing optic: a simple refractive lens, which consists of a thick, curved piece or glass or plastic. We suggest replacing this bulky element with holographic optics. You may be familiar with holographic images that can be seen in a science museum or on your credit card and appear three-dimensionally with realistic depth inside or outside the page. Like these holographic images, our holographic optics is a record of the interaction of laser light with objects, but in this case the object is more of a lens than a 3D scene. The result is a dramatic reduction in thickness and weight: the holographic optics bend the light like a lens, but it looks like a thin, transparent sticker.
The proof-of-concept headset also uses what Facebook calls “polarization-based optical folding” to reduce the distance between the actual display and the lens that focuses the image. With polarization-based optical folding, "the light can be controlled to move both forward and backward within the lens, allowing this empty space to be traversed several times and reduced to a fraction of the original volume."
This Facebook GIF helps visualize how both techniques work together:
However, these glasses are only a proof-of-concept. It is therefore unclear whether they will ever come onto the market. "While it points to the future development of light, comfortable and powerful AR / VR technology, our work is currently pure research," wrote the Facebook research team in its blog post.
Many companies revolve around the idea of glasses-like AR / VR headsets that combine the best of both technologies in a single device. However, it is usually a bulky VR-centered headset that uses outward-facing cameras to perform light AR. Intel and Microsoft, both of whom use the term mixed reality to describe devices like the HoloLens, have been investing in this idea for some time.
But now more and more companies are working behind the scenes to make a smaller, truly hybrid device a reality. Apple has been reported to have been working on this for years, and Google has just bought AR glasses company North today, an acquisition that can help it revive its dream of a Google Glass-style heads-up display for consumers.
While we can't be sure if any of the technology giants will bring out combined AR / VR glasses, the proof-of-concept that Facebook is demonstrating could give some insight into how such a device could look in the future.
Find out more about Facebook's proof-of-concept in this white paper by Andrew Maimone and Junren Wang from the Facebook Reality Labs team.