Meta’s on a Quest to Make VR Crisper

Meta’s latest patent may make for a less choppy metaverse.

Photo by Meta Media Gallery

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Meta wants to make virtual scenes even more realistic. 

The social media behemoth filed a patent application for methods that would reduce visual glitches when using virtual reality headsets. 

The filing shows that Meta is keen to patent several techniques that make rendering its VR content smoother while using foveated rendering – a technique that uses eye tracking within a headset in order to display higher-quality graphics where the wearer is looking, and lower-density graphics on the periphery. 

Meta’s patent is for technical tweaks that would likely go unnoticed by the user, but are designed to make rendering in its VR headsets better and smoother. 

Here’s how the tech works: Meta’s custom GPU creates the image in the headset, then divides it into different sections, or tiles. These tiles are key to how Meta’s VR computers will decide what to render – the patent notes the headset will identify the tiles where the person’s gaze is, as well as some in the surrounding area, by using eye tracking. 

Then, Meta’s headset computer will tell the GPU which tiles in the center of the person’s view to render in high detail (or, as Meta puts it, “high pixel-density”). Surrounding tiles will be rendered in “low-pixel density,” while those in between are produced with a mix of detail. 

Most interestingly, Meta’s patent also said its headset computer can render border tiles in both high and low-pixel density, effectively duplicating them. This allows the headset to “blend” the border tiles with low and high density to “create a smooth transition.” This not only adds to the idea of realism in VR, making it feel more natural, but also saves Meta valuable energy. 

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Foveated rendering is a clutch way for companies like Meta to save precious computational power. VR is not yet energy-efficient, and some AI chip processors like those made by Intel claim to use 1,000 times more computing power than the average CPU. And the demand for computational energy when it comes to using VR is only expected to rise as the graphics get better. Remember how long it took for Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg to gleefully announce his Horizon Worlds metaverse avatars finally had legs? Now imagine the technical lift it’d take to transform that rough, animated physique into a realistic humanoid.

While Meta’s recently been in the headlines for its recent work on Llama 2, its newest AI large language model built to rival ChatGPT, the company’s not forgotten Zuckerberg’s ambitions to become the destination for virtual reality: “Management remains focused on bringing metaverse to the mainstream,” said Derek Higa, director and research analyst at William O’Neil

Since the beginning of 2022, Meta’s Reality Labs has lost $21 billion, which management said it expects to increase. It’s got a stark sheet of competitors to face down, including Valve, HTC, Sony and Google. “I think success will reside in user adoption,” Higa noted, adding that Meta sold around 9 million Quest headsets in 2022, a roughly 40% annual growth. Still, Higa said “there really isn’t a ‘killer app’ for VR/AR yet which will really drive user growth to the next level.” 

A choppy metaverse, lackluster graphics and dearth of community have left the virtual reality market stagnated. Last year, U.S. sales of VR headsets dropped 2% to $1.1 billion, while worldwide shipments sank by 12%, according to NPD Group

Besides pricing, could graphics processing really make the difference between a buyer choosing a Meta headset over the others? That remains to be seen, but with some analysts speculating that motion sickness from choppy rendering is one factor hindering adoption of VR, smoothing out the experience could be Meta’s best bet. 

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