An interesting VR demo made its way to the Upload offices recently. I held the Expanse viewer to my face like Cardboard, but inside I saw something unlike anything I’ve seen before in VR — a high resolution monoscopic virtual reality home theater.
The vast majority of VR headsets available today are of a similar general architecture. If the headset blocks out the real world, it generally does so with a small high resolution screen split in half (or two of them synced together) with a pair of lenses in front for each eye. The approach seems to magnify the size of the pixels so it’s like looking at a much lower resolution screen. In fact, the pixels are so big it can look like you’re seeing the world through a screen door. There’s even a term for it — the screen-door effect — when each pixel is like a little square in the door through which you can see the world.
Expanse doesn’t use this architecture. It showed me a crisp home theater that could be resized up to an IMAX screen. Here’s how the system differs from traditional headsets, according to the creators:
Our magic utilizes an all reflective optical design similar to those used by professional aircraft simulators called a collimated display. This design avoids the chromatic aberration (color error caused by the refraction of light through a lens) inherent in the refractive designs used by Cardboard, Gear VR, Rift, and Vive and greatly reduces distortion.
Using a unique parabolic optic with a dielectric mirror coating, Expanse images the entire phone display to each eye (rather than the two separate smaller images used by other VR devices). Because of this, Expanse is monoscopic or in other words it trades off stereoscopic 3d for resolution resulting in an image that is up to 1440p (or 4 times better than standard HD) over a 90 degree FOV.
After trying this viewer for a few minutes with a Samsung Galaxy S6 mounted inside I wanted to try it with a strap added and software that would let me get into bed and see this big screen seemingly stretch across my ceiling to watch the original Total Recall. Holding a phone to my face with shaky hands just isn’t the same. I’ve watched parts of a movie in Gear VR and the overall experience hasn’t been good enough to convince me to watch a full-length movie all by myself rather than on my Samsung TV. I wanted to see if a higher resolution image could change that.
I didn’t get the chance to try that deeper demo and can’t say whether or not you should put $80 behind the idea on Kickstarter. Before taking this as a knock against the concept, you should know I am just personally reluctant to back hardware crowdfunding projects. They often miss their delivery dates if they are able to deliver at all and I know how many things can go wrong between raising money and shipping. To that point, even though I wrote about the Rift back during its crowdfunding project I didn’t even personally back it. All that said, I know a lot of VR enthusiasts who do back hardware crowdfunding projects and might be tempted by the idea just to have a different kind of VR headset to try.
Also, in the Kickstarter video they show this headset being used for augmented reality or first-person view drone flying. I didn’t see either of these applications first-hand and both seem pretty far-fetched for me to imagine being enjoyable in any of today’s VR headsets. The amount of latency and limited quality of head tracking you’re likely to get out of a typical smartphone is going to make those use cases extremely difficult.
The creators just launched the idea on Kickstarter and they plan to ship in January if they reach their $200,000 fundraising goal over the next month.
Featured image is an early concept Expanse viewer I tried with a Samsung Galaxy S6 slotted into the top to provide the high resolution home theater display experience. There’s a USB dongle inserted to allow the operation of an wireless pointing device.