When Varjo (‘shadow’ in Finnish) revealed a prototype of its virtual reality headset in June, it caused quite a stir amongst the technology media. The reason why is simple: while several VR glasses already exist, the immersiveness of their experience is hindered by the slightly blurred images these products provide. But Varjo has found a way to solve this.
“We bring human-eye resolution to VR, which no one has done before,” explains Urho Konttori, CEO and co-founder of Varjo. “We believe this can revolutionise how companies use VR.”
Varjo claims it can achieve resolution that is 70 times better than any current head-mounted display, including well-known brands like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The technology works by mimicking how the human eye moves. Varjo’s technology (which it calls ‘bionic display’) follows the user’s gaze and offers a crystal-clear image wherever their focus is.
The consequences of this open up a whelm of new possibilities for VR, particularly in professional environments. When clarity is not an issue, pilots can replace expensive flight simulators with VR headsets, architects can walk inside a virtual building to adjust their designs and engineers can practice hazardous training in complete safety.
Varjo believes plenty of similar applications exists across various field, including the automotive industry, construction, design and education. And the startup is not alone in this belief. According to Konttori, they were contacted by over 300 large companies after the prototype (codenamed ‘20/20’) was first announced.
“Many were skeptical, but when we went to show the technology, for example to a large German car manufacturer, they tried the demo for 30 seconds and said they were interested,” he says. “This shows there is a lot of demand for VR technology, but so far it hasn’t been suitable for professional use.”
The past year has been quite a ride. In the summer of 2016 Varjo founders Konttori, Niko Eiden, Klaus Melakari and Roope Rainisto had just left developing new technologies at Microsoft when they were asked to do a quick virtual reality demo for a Finnish startup. Its investors saw the demo, and suddenly the quartet had seed funding in their pocket to start a company.
“In practice, we walked out as entrepreneurs, although we didn’t initially have any plans for that,” Konttori recalls.
The founders decided to seize the moment and Varjo was born. They started by developing technology for video-based VR, but soon found the image quality of existing headsets didn’t match up to their vision.
“This was when we decided to build our own display,” Konttori explains. “We realised if we brought super high resolution specifically to the area the eye focuses on, we can achieve the standard of human-eye resolution a lot faster than with any other technology.”
By March 2017, Varjo’s display technology was granted a US patent and six months later the startup closed a seven-million-euro funding round led by Sweden’s EQT Ventures. In 14 months, the company has grown from four founders to over 30 employees and has recruited talent from Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Nvidia and Rovio.
Now they are working hard to get a developer version of Varjo’s headset ready by early 2018, with commercial shipping to follow within the year.
Business users are the primary target, but Konttori stresses they haven’t forgotten about consumers. While the cost of the headset will initially be prohibitive, he hopes it will scale to consumer prices over the next two to three years.
Fourth technological transformation
Varjo’s ambitions aren’t limited to VR. Its next step will be expanding into augmented reality (AR, where virtual elements are added into the real world) and mixed reality (MR) where it believes the 20/20 headset has the potential to be an ideal fit. This is because its integrated cameras capture the outside world while its graphics chips can add virtual elements into this field of vision.
AR and MR are a step closer to the next technological transformation Varjo wants realise. While in its infancy the company believes in 20 to 30 years we could live in a world where reality and the virtual reality are almost indistinguishable.
“If the first transformation was text-based computers, the second graphics interfaces, the third mobile, then the fourth is immersive technology,” Konttori explains. “We are at the point where we can help ignite this transformation and if we help to start it, we also want to lead it.”