Do you get headaches or feel nauseous while using VR headsets? About 20% of people do. Even if VR headsets don’t cause you physical discomfort, you might feel that your virtual worlds seem… flat.
That’s because they are flat. VR headsets using close-to-eye displays rely on lenses. While a lot of cool technology goes into them, they really work a lot like television or computer screens. Advancements like eye-tracking and autofocus try to fix these problems.
But, they’ll never work. At least not according to Doug Magyari. Magyari and IMMY, his company based in Troy, Michigan, believe that they have the solution: VR headsets that don’t use lenses.
What Causes “VR Sickness”?
A 2019 study identified vergence-accommodation conflict and focal rivalry as huge barriers to adoption. In a recent webinar given by Bjorn Book-Larsson of VIVEPORT, he said that issues like these may be why VR user sessions tend to be significantly shorter than user sessions in other forms of media.
Vergence-accommodation conflict occurs when the brain is confused by perceived distance and actual distance being different. Your eyes orient differently to look at things that are close, opposed to things that are far away. So, when something seems far away but is actually close, your brain and eyes can’t keep up.
Focal rivalry is similar. You could almost look at it as a kind of vergence-accommodation conflict. When you look at things in the real world, you can choose to focus on things that are close, versus things that are far away. With lens-based VR headsets, things that look close and things that look far away are actually the same distance from your eyes. Again, your brain and your eyes don’t know what to do.
If you dive into the links above, you’ll find that that article about what a big problem vergence-accommodation conflict is was published five years ago. That seems like decades in the XR space. While these are still real problems, the best solution that the public currently has access to is the VIVE Pro Eye system that just launched a few months ago.
“Getting a headset to see how we see the real world using lenses is a dead-end,” Magyari said in a phone interview. “The only lens involved when you wear an IMMY is your own eye.”
The IMMY Story
It’s the late 1990s. Magyari isn’t in VR yet – the idea barely exists. What he is doing, is experimenting with using high-definition audio to help people with addiction. Boeing gives him a contract to create experiences that will reduce accidents among employees. Magyari founds IMMY to explore immersive video.
“I think the technology is amazing. The ability to communicate with humans when you take over their eyes and ears is mind-boggling,” said Magyari. “Trying to use this technology in the most organic way possible is how we came up with the whole mirror-lens differential.”
For the next six years, IMMY works on various proto-VR experiences, largely training for the military. Then, in the early aughts, IMMY begins development of its own VR headset. According to Magyari, they start using mirror-based models for military applications in 2009 – three years before the Oculus Rift becomes the first major consumer VR headset.
Mirrors can provide an infinite depth of field and do not have “image planes” like lens-based images, according to Magyari. Further, they do not induce the vergence/accommodation conflict – they are “accommodation invariant.” “As an example: […] if you look in the rearview mirror of your car at the kids in the backseat, they are in focus. If you decide to look at something 300 feet behind you, that is also in focus, simply because you decided to focus your attention on something else,” Magyari wrote in a publicly available whitepaper.
Between 2012 and 2019, Magyari applies for or is rewarded no fewer than eight patents for the IMMY display. In our interview, Magyari tells me that the IMMY VR headset should be introduced before the end of the year for under $500.
A VR Headset Without VR Sickness?
The headset is called the IMMY Mark I and features “neo” – short for “Natural Eye Optic.” Besides a VR experience that can be used for hours at a time with no side effects and that doesn’t require eye-tracking or machine focus, it doesn’t make any astronomical promises.
Specs aren’t hugely available in the patents, and none are on the company’s website. In our interview, Magyari tells me that the IMMY headset has a 62-degree field of view – impressive, but not unbelievable.
When the Mark I does launch, Magyari told me, it’ll be “simple and functioning in an Imax-like experience.” So, however long viewers have to wait, gamers and enterprise users may have to wait even longer.
A Future Lined With Mirrors
Magyari told me that IMMY is the only group relying on mirrors using lenses. But, they aren’t the only ones experimenting with lenses.
While this story was going through the editing process, IEEE spectrum released an article describing a developing approach to solve occlusion problems in AR.
In occlusion, light from closer objects washes out light from farther back. This makes it difficult for digital images to appear solid in some conditions.
“Our system uses these mirrors to switch between a see-through state, which allows the user to observe a small part of the real world, and a reflective state, where the same mirror blocks light from the scene in favor of an [artificial] light source,” Stanford University researcher Brooke Krajancich told IEEE.
The project is currently in its early stages and has a number of potential drawbacks, including a huge draw on computational power.
The Future Is Always Upon Us
A VR headset that offers a realistic experience with no “VR sickness” is something that many of us are willing to wait for. That VR remains a constantly evolving space always moving toward better experiences is a reality that is already upon us.