The Oculus Rift has been sitting pretty in the head-mounted display space by itself for a while now, But if this research project from Nvidia is any indication, it'll might have some company in the not-too-distant future.
At first glance, Nvidia's prototype head-mounted display looks more like a pair of sunglasses than a VR headset. Part of the plan is to create a new headset that's much lighter in weight so you can wear it for longer periods of time without discomfort. At the same time, Nvidia's research team has developed a microlens array that helps enlarge individual pixels and even produces stereoscopic 3D.
Nvidia developed its very early prototype by actually hacking apart a head-mounted display (HMD) for Sony's ECX332A OLED microdisplays--which serve as the digital viewfinders in Sony Alpha cameras. Nvidia engineers also placed a microlens display that resolves the entire pixel display into one sharp, high-quality image.
The Oculus Rift is fairly bulky in order to support all its electronics and its two large focusing lenses. In order to view a close-up digital image, it requires a special housing to focus the entire digital scene to your eyeball.
By comparison, Nvidia created a microlens array and used so-called light field technology to do the same thing with optical elements that are only one centimeter thick and weigh 0.7 grams each. If any of this sounds familiar, it's because the Lytro camera uses the same sort of technology to capture images from every focal point. Nvidia's headset isn't out to capture images--instead, it tries to show you an entire digital scene.
The tradeoff here, however, is that the added microlens effectively blurs the display in the same way a digital image becomes less detailed when you enlarge it too much. So while each Sony OLED microdisplay shows images at 720p, the final display you see is muddled.
Besides this early prototype unit and one research abstract, we don't know how far Nvidia plans to take this technology--or whether we'll ever see it in a commercial product--but it's certainly interesting to see the HMD arms race begin.
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