The best VR display I’ve ever seen costs only $6,000

The best VR display I've ever seen costs only $6,000
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Varjo VR-1 is like retina display VR on your face.


Joshua Goldman/CNET

If you’ve ever felt like VR headsets weren’t high-res enough, I’m here to tell you I’ve seen the solution. I’ve finally tried a headset that reached retina display. And you can try it too… if you have $6,000.

Up in a hotel suite at the Mandarin Oriental here in New York, I slid on the mirror-fronted Varjo VR-1 headset, just like any other head-mounted display I’ve ever put on. But what I saw was nothing like other VR. I’d steeled myself against other reports I’d read from VR sites that had gotten early demos last year and declared the experience “breathtaking.” But even so, Varjo’s ultra high-def VR headset has a clarity I’ve never seen before.

I’m looking at a car design, a model made by Autodesk, spinning around in front of me. The finish, the hubcaps, everything looks ultra crisp. It’s like seeing everything on the best gaming monitor. Or like I’m seeing it in real life.

Then I’m in a plane cockpit, a flight simulator in Prepar3D by Lockheed Martin. I look at the gauges and readouts all around me. Perfect.

I’m taken to other settings: a Japanese mountaintop, rendered in Unity. The studio of Finnish artist Tommi Toija, captured in incredibly detailed photogrammetry, with real sculptures and surreal art all around me. A living room design with furniture so detailed I lean in to look at the weave and texture of cushions and can’t see any pixels at all — just ever-so-slight angles where the polygons occasionally show. It often looks hyperreal. The “screen door” effect that’s always in VR headsets was gone.

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Varjo’s comparison of a car interior in HTC Vive Pro (left) vs Varjo VR-1 (right). That’s pretty much what it looks like.


Varjo

The benefits

No, I haven’t tried every VR headset out there, including the 8K Pimax or HP’s upcoming high-def VR headset, Copper. Those headsets have pixel resolutions that are higher than the Varjo VR-1. But Finnish startup Varjo, founded by former Microsoft and Nokia Research employees, has a headset with a pixel density that seems unbeatable. 

The Varjo VR-1 does it with mirrors, combining two displays in one. The center of its display shows VR at over 60 pixels per degree, which Varjo says is enough to achieve “retina” level human fovea resolution. It was 63 on the headset I tried — according to Varjo’s founders, the number could vary slightly by unit, but all will be over 60. The HTC Vive Pro, by comparison, has a pixel density of roughly 16 pixels per degree. 

You can find a pretty good discussion on pixel density in VR headsets at Road to VR for more explanation on that front. It’s a little like the importance of pixels per inch (PPI) for 2D phone, laptop and tablet displays.

At any rate, the difference feels massive, especially for making out fine detail in anything. A high-resolution recreation of an art studio that I walked through let me lean in and examine sculptures to explore tiny changes in material and paint. Another demo, this time in an art museum, brought me inches away from scanned paintings. I was able to see brushwork and paint without any pixelation.

Varjo’s founders have backgrounds at Nokia and Microsoft, and CEO Niko Eiden developed optical technology at Nokia Research that became part of the Microsoft HoloLens. The Varjo VR-1’s display combines a 1,920×1,080-pixel low persistence micro-OLED and a 1,440×1,600-pixel low persistence AMOLED per eye, using a half-mirror to blend the two displays, and a high refractive magnifying lens to create a super high-def part in the center. It sounds utterly bizarre, but in my eyes it felt normal — even if I knew the center display was more high-res than the edges.

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The eye tracking demo was lightning-quick.


Joshua Goldman/CNET

There’s also “20/20” eye tracking, developed in-house, which Varjo’s founders boast is the best and most accurate, beating upcoming competitors such as the HTC Vive Pro Eye. It’s hard to verify that in a demo, but I was put in an air traffic control simulation by Superbright, from Poland, where I stood surrounded by computer monitors, watching planes taxi and take off. As my eyes moved around, I saw a circle flit to match my vision, highlighting the monitor’s information, targeting planes and bringing up pop-up information, or seeing flight trajectories. I saw my eyes move around a map, highlighting time zones. Sometimes it felt like the things I selected happened before I even knew I’d go there with my eyes.

The Varjo VR-1 is just a headset: you bring the rest. It’s designed to connect with Steam VR, works with Steam VR 2.0, and is compatible with HTC Vive’s Lighthouse room sensors and controllers. But at $5,995, it’s also aimed squarely at professional needs and specific requests from clients working in 3D creation and simulation that want absolutely perfect clarity. This is a specifically engineered design, made along with feedback from early partners including AirBus, Audi, Bohemia Interactive Simulations, Foster & Partners, Saab, Sellen, Volkswagen, and Volvo. After all, people are designing cars in VR now. Varjo’s headset is the VR equivalent of a super premium monitor.

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Looking at an art gallery, where the detail level gets pretty crazy.


Joshua Goldman/CNET

The drawbacks

The field of view on the Varjo VR-1 is smaller than other mainstream VR headsets (87 degrees, smaller than the Vive Pro’s 110 degrees), which can make it feel a bit more like looking through a porthole than visiting an expansive world. But Varjo’s headset is trading that wider canvas for a pixel-dense experience. For some customers, according to Varjo, it could make a lot of sense. But for others, at that price, definitely not.

It’s also not operating at that crazy 60-plus pixels-per-degree retina-level resolution across the entire field of view. That’s only in a central zone that covers a majority of what you might be looking at straight-on. The rest of the display defaults back to 16 pixels per degree, more like an HTC Vive Pro. And even though the headset has eye tracking, the high-res part of the display won’t follow your eyes around. You’ll need to make sure anything is lined up in the center. The difference between center and edge bled away as I used the headset, but it’s there. I wish the “bionic” center display was larger, or at least able to follow my gaze.

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That faceplate? Removable, with other parts to come.


Joshua Goldman/CNET

Mixed reality is coming

The Varjo VR-1 can, wildly enough, swap faceplates, meaning the headset is aiming for mixed reality as well as VR. The company is working on a mixed-reality add-on, targeted for this summer. It will add the necessary sensors to make the experience a potential HoloLens or Magic Leap competitor, albeit at a significantly higher price. It’s unclear how the headset will incorporate mixed reality, but Varjo aims to do it with that same 87-degree field of view. That would be better than either Magic Leap or HoloLens if Varjo could pull it off.

This headset isn’t the answer to everything that VR needs. But it shows that VR can get to retina-level quality, and it’s awesome. Now stay patient for that to become something you can actually afford at home someday.

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