VR Prototypes Reveal Facebook’s Surprisingly Critical Research Directions

A short while ago, Tested posted a video all about hands-on time with virtual reality (VR) headset prototypes from Meta (which is to say, Facebook) and there are some genuinely interesting bits in there. The video itself is over an hour long, but if you’re primarily interested in the technical angles and why they matter for VR, read on because we’ll highlight each of the main points of research.

As absurd as it may seem to many of us to have a social network spearheading meaningful VR development, one can’t say they aren’t taking it seriously. It’s also refreshing to see each of the prototypes get showcased by a researcher who is clearly thrilled to talk about their work. The big dream is to figure out what it takes to pass the “visual Turing test”, which means delivering visuals that are on par with that of a physical reality. Some of these critical elements may come as a bit of a surprise, because they go in directions beyond resolution and field-of-view.

Solid-state varifocal lens demo, capable of 32 discrete focal steps.

At 9:35 in on the video, [Douglas Lanman] shows [Norman Chan] how important variable focus is to delivering a good visual experience, followed by a walk-through of all the different prototypes they have used to get that done. Currently, VR headsets display visuals at only one focal plane, but that means that — among other things — bringing a virtual object close to one’s eyes gets blurry. (Incidentally, older people don’t find that part very strange because it is a common side effect of aging.)

The solution is to change focus based on where the user is looking, and [Douglas] shows off all the different ways this has been explored: from motors and actuators that mechanically change the focal length of the display, to a solid-state solution composed of stacked elements that can selectively converge or diverge light based on its polarization. [Doug]’s pride and excitement is palpable, and he really goes into detail on everything.

At the 30:21 mark, [Yang Zhao] explains the importance of higher resolution displays, and talks about lenses and optics as well. Interestingly, the ultra-clear text rendering made possible by a high-resolution display isn’t what ended up capturing [Norman]’s attention the most. When high resolution was combined with variable focus, it was the textures on cushions, the vividness of wall art, and the patterns on walls that [Norman] found he just couldn’t stop exploring.

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Behold: Valve’s VR And AR Prototypes

Just in case anyone secretly had the idea that Valve Software’s VR and other hardware somehow sprang fully-formed from a lab, here are some great photos and video of early prototypes, and interviews with the people who made them. Some of the hardware is quite raw-looking, some of it is recognizable, and some are from directions that were explored but went nowhere, but it’s all fascinating.

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An early AR prototype that worked like looking through a tube into another world.

The accompanying video (embedded below) has some great background and stories about the research process, which began with a mandate to explore the concepts of AR and VR and determine what could be done and what was holding things back.

One good peek into this process is the piece of hardware shown to the left. You look into the lens end like a little telescope. It has a projector that beams an image directly into your eye, and it has camera-based tracking that updates that image extremely quickly.

The result is a device that lets you look through a little window into a completely different world. In the video (2:16) one of the developers says “It really taught us just how important tracking was. No matter [how you moved] it was essentially perfect. It was really the first glimpse we had into what could be achieved if you had very low persistence displays, and very good tracking.” That set the direction for the research that followed.

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Learn 40 Years Of Mech Prototyping At Lightspeed

So, what are you doing for the next five and a half hours?  If you’re as busy as we are, you might have to digest this amazing 18 part series of videos over the course of a week or so, but we can almost guarantee you’ll learn a lot. It’s a speedrun through the best collection of Mechanical Engineering knowledge we’ve every come across.

In this epic Youtube video series [Dan Gelbart] shares his knowledge of 40 years of prototyping mechanical designs in a way we’ve never seen before. Not only does he show you how to build things, but he gives away a life time of “tips and tricks” that only a veteran builder would know. There are so many little gems of wisdom in this video series, it’s hard to know where to start with our description. He covers all the usual topics: everything from materials, adhesives, coatings, and such. But the real value of this series is all the little trinkets of information he shares along the way.

Don’t be intimated by some of the tools he’s using – chances are there is a DIY version of the piece of equipment out there, and often you can find a hackerspace or enthusiast in the area who will help you out with their gear. We think this video series should be a must watch for any engineering student or hacker. We made a video playlist for you so you can start watching the videos after the break.

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