At Siggraph 2022 – a technology event where researchers can showcase their latest projects – I had the opportunity to try out a prototype VR headset that Meta will never release to the public.
This is not the first time that Meta presents its prototypes of headsets. In June, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and members of Meta’s Reality Labs division revealed more than a dozen devices they will never release.
One such headset is the Starburst – a bulky VR headset that can reach a brightness of up to 20,000 nits, which makes it about 200 times brighter than the Oculus Quest 2.
That extra glow isn’t intended to turn the headset into some sort of eye-burning torture device. Instead, it helps Meta to experiment with HDR.
HDR (high dynamic range) is the technology used in screens to make colors stand out in bright scenes, while ensuring that dark objects are detailed in dark scenes. TVs without HDR will show muted colors and scenes set in dark environments will be little more than a gloomy blob.
By increasing the brightness of your headphones to the levels that Starburst can deliver, Meta can greatly improve the HDR capabilities of your headphones. In practical terms, this allowed Meta to create impressive immersive environments.
all the lights
Starburst transported me to a coastline, a beautifully realistic scene of waves lapping gently against nearby rocks.
Increasing the brightness from 5,000 to 10,000 nits, I was transported to an inverted version of the same coastline. The sky turned from a brilliant blue to a cloudy crimson, and the once-inviting waters glowed an eerie green – it was like I was in a scene from Season 4 of Stranger Things.
Zooming things in to 20,000 nits and the scene was almost pitch black, but I could still see the details of the rocks scattered around me. The only lighting was these random beams of light that suddenly descended from the sky, reflecting off the water and helping to delineate my surroundings.
Despite the environment becoming progressively more sinister, each layer felt progressively more real.
This was especially true for Meta’s other HDR demo. Instead of being an entire scene, Meta suspended a large metal marble – the size of a basketball – in front of me.
This orb was reflecting an office space back to me, and as the brightness of the headset increased, the quality of the reflections improved dramatically.
The ball was dull and gray around the edges at 100 nits; the same glow as the best VR headsets we have today.
I could see the scene reflected, but it was clearly false. At 1,000 nits – the kind of brightness you’d expect from one of the best 4K TVs out there – the orb looked much more real, with the reflected scene becoming even clearer. Taking things up to 20,000 nits made the reflections even more detailed.
No headphone should have all that power
So if Starburst can produce top-tier visuals, why would Meta ever want to release it?
Well, for starters, the device is incredibly bulky. Instead of being strapped to my head, Starburst hung from a large metal arm using a pulley; I had to hold it to my eyes by straps on either side.
If you wanted to freely explore a virtual space with this device, you would need to spend a lot of time training in the gym.
However, it has to be so bulky as it requires so many specialized components not only to improve the backlight power but also to prevent overheating.
It also means that some other components had to be removed to make room for the essentials. Unlike the standalone Quest 2, Starburst had to rely on an external PC.
Also, Starburst is very bright. When it was at full brightness, scenes had to be kept very dark just to keep my eyes from exploding.
The few powerful lights that illuminated the scenes almost hurt to look at, making Starburst experiences one you wouldn’t want to spend too much time immersed in.
Experiences that relied on Starburst’s lower brightness settings in the 1,000-10,000 range were not only amazing to look at, but much more comfortable. One day, we will be able to really enjoy headphones with these kinds of features.
While Starburst will never see the light of day, it is playing a role in the development of Meta’s next-gen hardware such as Project Cambria, the Oculus Quest 3 and beyond.
As Mark Zuckerberg explained earlier, the Meta prototypes will “help us identify which technical paths will allow us to make significant enough improvements that we can start moving closer to visual realism.”
Taking various aspects to the extreme, Meta can analyze which ones have the most to offer users in terms of making VR more realistic and enjoyable.
Starburst proved to me that HDR is an area that desperately needs an update, because right now, my Oculus Quest 2 isn’t holding a candle to what Starburst had to offer.
Given how long development takes, it will likely take a while for future Meta headphones to catch some of Starburst’s tricks. However, when they finally do, we’re sure to be in for a treat.
What if you’re after something that’s going to impress you today? Check out our picks for the best Oculus Quest 2 games.