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This Startup Thinks It Can Make the VR Headset With the Best Screen Resolution

Janko Roettgers

Helsinki-based Varjo Technologies came out of stealth Monday with a bold claim: The company believes that it can make a VR headset with a dramatically better screen resolution that existing products like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive — up to 17 times better, to be precise.

Varjo’s technology promises to do away with visible pixels in VR, and allow users to read even fine print and other intricate details. “This is a very pivotal moment for VR,” said Varjo founder and CEO Urho Konttori.

At the core of Varjo’s technology is an interesting trick that mimics the way human vision works. When we read a sign or closely look at an object, we don’t actually have the entire field-of-view in focus. Instead, we hone in on one point, and the rest of whatever we see is out of focus.

Varjo is emulating the same thing by overlaying two displays within a headset — a small HD display that offers a comparably high resolution for a subsection of the image, and a regular headset display that renders the rest of the scene in a much lower resolution. The idea is to use eye tracking to determine where users are looking, and then display that part in high-resolution, while rendering the rest as a kind of background.

Varjo recently demonstrated this approach to Variety with a prototype headset that combined an Oculus Rift with a second display overlaid at the center of the screen. This prototype didn’t yet use eye tracking, and also didn’t really blend the two images. Instead, it essentially showed a high-resolution rectangle in the center of one’s field-of-view, while using the regular Rift display for the rest of the image.

The result was intriguing and disappointing at the same time. The prototype headset made it possible to read small words and look at the details of an airplane cockpit control panel that would have been a blur with any regular VR headset. However, the overlay was clearly visible, and took away from the immersion that’s so crucial to VR.

Konttori said that the company has prototypes in the lab that use movable glass panes and other tricks to seamlessly fuse the two images. He also suggested that Varjo was able to use the same technology for augmented reality by combining its VR headset with an outward-facing camera.

Varjo wants to release a limited number of developer headsets by the end of this year, and is initially targeting professionals with its hardware, including Hollywood types who might want to use VR for pre-visualization and other applications, but haven’t been able to do so because of the relatively low resolution of existing headsets.

Next year, the company wants to start selling its product for these kinds of B2B applications. And eventually, Varjo wants to sell to consumers as well.

However, Konttori said that Varjo won’t license its technology, and is instead 100% focused on building its own hardware. That won’t be easy, to say the least, especially for a small company that aims to compete with industry giants like Facebook and HTC. Konttori said that the company has assembled team of former Nokia and and Microsoft experts that knows how to do hardware.

Still, he had to admit: “What we do is extremely ambitious and extremely challenging.”

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