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Oculus’ New Focal Surface Display

Oculus has some pretty amazing technological breakthroughs that are tricking their way into consumer virtual reality headsets. One of their newest technological approaches is a Focal Surface Display that accurately makes elements of the what users see blurry and other parts sharp and in focus mimicking focal depth.

Why would you want part of your screen to be blurry?

Human vision works this way. When humans focus on objects in the foreground or background, elements of world come into focus while others become blurry. Oculus’ new approach aims to mirror this perceptual phenomena to provide a more natural experience that mimics human depth perception.

Oculus' believes that their new tech called the Focal Surface Display is “ground breaking.” A spokesperson for Oculus said, "Focal Surface Displays mimic the way our eyes naturally focus on objects of varying depths. Rather than trying to add more and more focus areas to get the same degree of depth, this new approach changes the way light enters the display using spatial light modulators (SLMs) to bend the headset’s focus around 3D objects—increasing depth and maximizing the amount of space represented simultaneously. All of this adds up to improved image sharpness and a more natural viewing experience in VR."

This means quite a few different things. First of all, Oculus’ new approach uses a mechanism called a spatial light modulator (SLM) which bends light. In this case the SLM bends the 2d images produced by the computer keeping elements in focus and distorting or blurry others. The spatial light modulator appears to be the meat of Oculus’ new approach. Spatial light modulators have been around for awhile. Overhead projectors are a simple form of this device.

Adding spatial light modulators (SLM) to the Oculus’ will be tricky and require some engineering tricks. Beyond shrinking such devices to fit into a headset, the software that controls the SLM must be programmed in a very specific and complex manner. Additionally, all of this required surpassing significant hurdles of optic distortion. Describing their approach Oculus says,

"Focal surface displays continue down the path set by varifocal and multifocal concepts, further customizing virtual images to scene content. We have demonstrated that emerging phase-modulation SLMs are well-prepared to realize this concept, having benefited from decades of research into closely-related adaptive imaging applications. We have demonstrated high-resolution focal stack reproductions with a proof-of-concept prototype, as well as presented a complete optimization framework addressing the joint focal surface and color image decomposition problems. By unifying concepts in goal-based caustics, retinal scanning displays, and other accommodation-supporting HMDs, we hope to inspire other researchers to leverage emerging display technologies that may address vergence-accommodation conflict in HMDs."

This means Oculus has been combining a huge variety of research for their Focal Surface Display. Their approach using SLMs has allowed them to get past many common decomposition problems that commonly plague lenses in virtual reality headsets. Beyond adding depth and a natural focus mechanism, Oculus’ new approach should have added benefits for people who wear glasses. Discussing the wide angled engineering approach Oculus said

“By combining leading hardware engineering, scientific and medical imaging, computer vision research, and state-of-the-art algorithms to focus on next-generation VR, this project takes a highly interdisciplinary approach—one that, to the best of our knowledge, has never been tried before. It may even let people who wear corrective lenses comfortably use VR without their glasses."

When will we see this tech in Oculus’ headsets? As can be seen in the video above, the image quality looks pretty poor, I would imagine consumer versions of this tech is fairly far off. That said, at the rapid pace technology moves these days, we could see this new tech sooner rather than later - perhaps a 3rd generation Oculus if not sooner.

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