Meta Reality Lab Outlines its Mixed Reality Vision
Meta has had a tough year in 2022, facing increasing pushback and skepticism from investors over its huge bets on the loss-making metaverse projects and a general slowdown in its core business. The pushback and the general economic situation forced Meta to lay off 11,000 staff a few weeks ago. In spite of the challenges, Meta is still powering full steam ahead with its vision of mixed reality, as a series of blog posts, it published a few days ago suggests.
Meta CTO Andrew “Boz” Bosworth admitted in a blog post that pursuing the mixed reality future has been fraught with challenges more than the company had anticipated.
Last week, Meta suffered a major blow when its lead consultant John Carmack resigned his consulting post after working in Meta’s (then Facebook) virtual reality technology for the past decade. Carmack had been with the company since 2013.
Meta has also faced harsh criticism from investors and other observers over its costly metaverse bet that cost its Meta Reality Lab division $3 billion every quarter this year. The division researches and develops virtual reality and augmented reality products like Meta Quest 2 and the recently launched Meta Quest Pro.
Bosworth said Meta faced serious criticism of its investments due to global economic challenges and the pressures on the company’s core business. These challenges, he said, had tested the company’s “belief in the future.”
The easiest route for the company to take, he stated, was to scale back on its ambitions and stick to what is safest and profitable now and try to squeeze as much as possible from it. Yet, in spite of these currents, Zuckerberg has decided to stick to his guns and pursue his mixed reality ambition. Meta is currently investing in XR more than any other company at the moment. Bosworth stated that other companies have been haunted by a failure to invest in the future, a mistake that Meta isn’t going to make. In spite of the challenges seen this year, virtual reality still managed to register a very impressive growth in 2022, in both software and hardware sales.
Boz says that such short-term thinking often leads to “disastrous consequences” and that such short-termism often fails in Silicon Valley. Meta, he states, is adapting to the challenges as evidenced by its recent steep layoffs, a tough call for the company to make after two decades of unprecedented growth. The company is still fully committed to its vision of the future just as it was, on the day it embarked on that path, he affirmed. Boz adds that Meta’s convictions are supported by a number of factors that have, so far, been misunderstood by many of the company’s biggest skeptics.
In Meta’s Q3 results reported this October, the company had an all-time high in daily active users as well as positive engagement trends. The Instagram platform already has over 2 billion monthly actives while WhatsApp has 2 billion daily actives. Bosworth says Meta is still directing most of its investments to its family of apps and it believes its strong core will be able to support the company’s ambitious and costly future agenda.
Boz noted that the company’s Q3 results also indicated approximately 80% of Meta’s overall investments are supporting its core business with only 20% going into Reality Labs.
Bosworth says Meta’s investments in the metaverse are justifiable because the company is keen to be at the leading edge in what is billed as one of the most competitive and most innovative industries in this age. He describes 2022 as the year when foundational pieces of the technology were pushed to developers and users for the first time. He cited the launch of the Quest Pro headset as one of Meta’s major accomplishments in its quest to bring high-end virtual reality technology to enterprises. The $1,500 Meta Quest Pro headset features a number of advanced features including sensors, eye-tracking, AR tech, and face-tracking functionalities and these cutting-edge features will be crucial in the future application of the technology.
Bosworth says the benefits of Meta’s current research and development work in mixed reality technologies will be “lived” in the coming decades. Its current potential is already being seen in mixed reality applications with devices that enable wearers to see their physical environment blended with digital objects such as in Figmin XR built by Overlay which Boz describes as the “future of AR vision” that Meta is building for.
Mixed reality, he says, offers more than just the ability to show a live video feed in a user’s immediate surroundings in a headset. For mixed reality to work optimally, there is the need for a headset that “understands” the room the user is in as a 3D space, recognizes the surfaces and objects around the wearer and how these interact with the digital objects.
Boz notes that this advanced mixed reality function will require technologies such as spatial anchors that make it possible for virtual objects to occupy fixed spaces that are in the physical world. It will also need scene understanding that enables physical spaces to be reconstructed virtually, and stereoscopic color passthrough which captures the physical world and accurately represents it in the headset complete with a sense of depth to ensure better comfort.
Boz believes virtual reality headsets will be used for work and will eventually replace laptops and desktop computers. The road toward that new computing paradigm, he posits, began with the launch of the Quest Pro headset which the company has positioned as a work headset. Eye and face-tracking will also unlock new possibilities. For now, both eye tracking and face tracking are giving users more expressive avatars in the Meta Quest Pro headset, ensuring users’ virtual versions of themselves are more accurately matching their real-life facial expressions. The avatars still remain legless but Meta says it is working on resolving this.
Meta says it is taking measures to develop an avatar system that will enhance the quality of expression, communication as well as connection in virtual experiences. Boz promises to share additional details on this in 2023.
However, eye-tracking and face-tracking will unlock longer-term possibilities in headsets that will go beyond the rendering of realistic avatars. Bosworth says Meta’s vision for its true augmented reality glasses will need years of progress and innovation that will create slimmer, lighter, and faster hardware. The hardware will also be more powerful without consuming too much battery power and producing too much heat.
A major milestone and efficiency gain in the evolution of these devices is when they will be capable of rendering the highest resolution graphics in a small section where the user’s gaze is focusing on, the so-called foveated rendering. Bosworth says foveated rendering will drive the progress for both augmented reality and virtual reality for years to come.
Meta says it also found out that the visual quality of VR devices was determined by a range of technologies beyond the metrics that have been used on the conventional displays used in TVs, smartphones, and computers. For instance, on top of display resolution, there are additional metrics such as system resolution, contrast, sharpness, and color range for each of the plays. There is also the optical stack in which the coatings and lenses have an impact on the quality of the display.
These technologies come together in Meta’s InfiniteDisplay system for virtual reality optics which has undergone several years of research and development. Boz says this research will pay off for years to come. In early 2022, Meta showed a number of research prototypes that have been built in-house to showcase its next-generation display technologies.
Meta is also expecting to flourish from its already vibrant community of creators, virtual reality developers, and users. Their productive self-expression is already evident on platforms such as Horizon Worlds.
Bosworth says virtual reality has reached a “very special moment” in 2022 and expects it to only get better in 2023. Machine learning, for instance, has undergone tremendous evolution over the years and hit a “boiling point” in 2022. He says that Meta’s biggest priorities at the moment are drawing from over a decade of investment in AI. Some of the core Meta projects such as the Presence Platform or Meta Reality heavily rely on advanced AI to work.
Bosworth believes the industry will go into a “new era of growth and competition” as new devices come into the market, with tremendous benefits to both users and the developer community. Meta will also be launching new products in the coming year, including a successor to the Meta Quest 2 headset. In spring, there will be the Meta Quest Gaming Showcase where the company will unveil some of the new games set to launch in 2023.
Bosworth says while Meta is creating new ways of working more efficiently, the company is still committed to its vision and long-term research effort.
The development of true AR glasses, he says, will need “a massive set of breakthroughs” and innovations across technological spectrums, ranging from lenses to AI-powered interfaces to lightweight materials among others.
He says the company has embarked on one of its most ambitious R&D operations with up to half of the Reality Labs operating expenses going into its initiatives. Bosworth says the virtual reality hardware and software released so far by Meta are just the tip of the iceberg and the best is yet to come.
Meta also issued an update on the latest in the development of its InfiniteDisplay along with other advanced virtual reality technologies and the progress it is making in the development of mixed reality. The company noted that it now has over 350 optical technology patents and many of the new technologies will be incorporated into its future headsets.