Varjo XR-1: Rethinking mixed reality and building for the wearable computing future

Can the current problems with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) be overcome by what is called either mixed or extended reality (MR/XR) technology? As a harbinger of this blended future, the Varjo XR-1 headset is an expensive solution – but for those that want to truly blend what is real and what is rendered, it appears to be the best out there.

varjo xr 1
Varjo Technologies

The AR/VR market is a bit of a mess.

On the AR side, Google nearly killed the effort with Google Glass. On the VR side, folks chasing price over quality and a lack of content have made VR nearly a non-starter.

AR has since shifted to the professional market and is doing OK, while VR struggles on the consumer side and is increasingly used for training on the pro side. But the concept of “mixed” reality was never truly met by either effort. VR rigs typically require reality to be prerendered and not live, and while AR rigs work with reality, their rendered images appear as ghosts largely unable to occlude the objects behind them, spoiling the effect.

Mixed reality promises the best of both worlds, a seamless visual tapestry of what is real and what is rendered. To do this requires a solution that can, in real time, scan and realistically instrument (if not render) the world around the viewer and inject realistically the rendered images.

This is what the new Varjo XR-1 does and it now comes closest to what mixed reality promises.

Varjo XR-1

The Varjo XR-1 headset looks like a high-end VR set, much like the Varjo VR-1 but with two very high-resolution cameras in front. These cameras capture a high-resolution image and then the rendered image is woven into the video feed in real time, properly occluding the items behind it so the presentation is near seamless. The high-resolution screens in the XR-1 headset then display the result in a visually accurate fashion so the user sees the resulting rendered image as their new reality.

This effort was undertaken initially with Volvo who wanted a way for someone to go on a test drive in a car that either didn’t exist (or, more likely, might not be on the local Volvo car lot). Thus, the latency had to be exceedingly low so the user not only didn’t get motion sick from the car moving out of sync with the image, but so the driver could use the headset while driving.

As you’d expect, performance requirements are high, with specifications on either an Intel or AMD 7 level processor and either a NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2018 or Quadro RTX 6000 graphics card. The device also uses Thunderbolt 3 for what must be impressive data throughput to make this all work.

This means the best likely solution is with a properly configured HP Inc. backpack PC or workstation, or one of the new NVIDIA Studio laptops (recently announced at Computex) would also work particularly in the initial Volvo application. I expect sitting it a car with that backpack would be a tad uncomfortable…though you could just strap it to the back of the driver seat or set it on the back seat.

The end solution would be wicked expensive for a consumer-focused market, but initially this will be focused on business buyers who want to render simulations or train in real world environments. It’s unlikely to replace either the Microsoft HoloLens or the Lenovo ThinkReality A6. This is because they are more self-contained and perform adequately in their current chosen roles.  

It could supplement them, though, as architects, designers and those wishing to provide a richer customer experience for clients look to the XR-1 because it provided a far more realistic higher-quality result.

In the end though, I expect that the Varjo XR-1 now sets the bar for what mixed (also called extended) reality headsets should accomplish. Now it is a matter of cost reducing and shrinking the solution so it can address the full AR/VR/XR/MR opportunity.

VR and AR are performing well below their potential largely due to some horrid mistakes made by the initial backers of both technologies. Now, as quality increases in both areas, another concept has broken out. Mixed or extended reality promises to blend both concepts into a single far more powerful solution.

The Varjo XR-1 comes closest to this coming perfect storm of technology and potentially heralds the coming wave of wearable computers with mixed or extended reality headsets. Our days of being able to tell what is real and what is rendered are increasingly numbered.

[Disclosure: some of the companies mentioned in this article – AMD, NVIDIA, HP Inc., Microsoft and Lenovo – are clients of the author.]

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