Virtual and augmented reality have come a long way since you had to go to the arcade and step into a VR console to immerse yourself in another world. The devices are a lot smaller than they used to be, but they can still be bulky and awkward. This is especially obvious if you still use a headset that relies on room sensors and hardlines connected to desktop computers or gaming consoles. Will these devices ever get smaller?
The Evolution of XR Headsets
The concept of virtual reality isn’t a new one. It actually dates back to the 1830s, when Sir Charles Wheatstone first described stereopsis — combining two photographs taken from different points to create a three-dimensional image. He could accomplish this with two mirrors set at 45-degree angles from the user’s eyes. In 1935, the technology was mentioned in the short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, but we didn’t see the first actual VR machine until 1956.
The Sensorama could fit four people at a time, and in addition to the 3D video, it could simulate everything from sounds to smells to atmospheric effects. The 1980s brought us the first wearable VR headset — a bulky apparatus with a pair of gloves that would allow users to interact with the virtual world. It was used for flight simulators and astronaut training in the late 1980s. While fascinating, these headsets only bear a passing resemblance to what is currently available on the market.
Today, most modern headsets are something you can easily store in a drawer or on a bedside table, but they’re still pretty bulky and ungainly. Will that change in the future?
How Small Can You Go?
In the 1960s, Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that we would eventually reach the maximum number of transistors that we could fit on a computer chip. Moore’s Law, as it came to be known, is something that has hung over the head of computer engineers for decades. Coders and computer engineers are looking for ways to overcome this problem, but the question remains — how small can designers make VR and AR headsets?
According to ARtillery Intelligence, the augmented, virtual and mixed-reality market is expected to be worth more than $66.1 billion by 2025. As XR adoption increases, companies and researchers are looking for a way to make these headsets lighter and more immersive at the same time. Teams at the University of Rochester have created a new headset that imprints “freeform optics with a nanophotonic optical element,” creating a lightweight headset that could make this technology more immersive and portable.
Right now, there’s a tradeoff — your device can only provide one or the other. As these devices get smaller and more portable, they will also have to provide an increased level of immersion you can’t get with existing technology.
Alternatives to XR
XR headsets may be the only option for gaming immersion at the moment, but if technology like Elon Musk’s Neuralink becomes more readily available, that might change. A monkey equipped with a Neuralink brain chip was able to play Pong without a controller. That’s a long way from the kind of high-resolution video games that we’ve become so accustomed to, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Neuralink could be the tool that gives us fully immersive virtual reality without bulky headsets, but it does come with downsides. It requires invasive brain surgery to install the chips, but the goal of the man-machine interface is nearly within reach. We won’t have to worry about shrinking VR and AR headsets down into something less bulky if all we have to do is plug in and think about the games we want to play.
On the other hand, augmented reality will always rely on headsets or cameras, but they don’t need to be intrusive or obvious. Eventually, as the technology shrinks, we could see AR displays included in glasses or sunglasses frames, giving us the ability to interact with a virtual world without needing anything more than what we would wear on a regular day.
If the technology continues to shrink, we could even see things like VR- or AR-enabled contact lenses, letting you step into a virtual world without the need of a full headset. These lenses are currently in the realm of science fiction, but not too long ago, so were the VR headsets on the market today.
What Does the Future of XR Headsets Look Like?
Virtual and augmented reality headsets are getting smaller and more comfortable to use every day. However, we’ve still got a long way to go before we start seeing the sort of thing people might be willing to wear for long periods. With people like Mark Zuckerberg working to create a virtual metaverse for work and play, comfortable and functional XR headsets will be necessary.
April Miller is a senior writer at ReHack Magazine and editorial contributor at AR Insider. She specializes in VR/AR, IoT, and business technology. See her work here and follow her @rehackmagazine.