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Varjo's lidar-enabled XR-3 VR headset shows where VR and AR are bound to blend

The $5,000 pro-level headset boasts perfect retina-level eye resolution for training and more

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- 03:24
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The Varjo XR-3 and VR-3 headsets. The XR-3 has lidar and can mix virtual and real using its passthrough cameras.

Varjo

At some point, the line between what we see in a VR headset and what we see in the real world may melt away. Finnish AR/VR headset maker Varjo could be approaching that moment with its latest lidar-enabled XR-3 headset, available to order today. At $5,495, plus a required $1,495 yearly software license, this is hardly cheap (a version without lidar, the VR-3, costs $3,195). But the headset, while expensive, is nearly half the price of the version Varjo made just a year ago, and does a lot more.

Apple's newest pro iPhones and iPads have lidar depth sensing to improve augmented reality and enable better 3D scanning, but lidar is expanding across AR and VR headsets, too. Lidar stands for "light detection and ranging," and uses an array of infrared lasers to quickly scan and measure distance in an array of 3D dots, creating a 3D spatial map of a room in seconds. The Varjo XR-3 adds depth-sensing along with its passthrough cameras, plus hand and eye tracking, and can make blends of VR and the real world happen on a display that could look as good as any high-end monitor.

Varjo's already partnered with Volvo to test-drive safety features in car dashboards, and has applications for flight simulators like Lockheed Martin's, where its extremely high-res display can pull out smaller details in virtual readouts.

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With hand tracking and eye tracking, the Varjo XR-3 could be a substitute for other AR headsets like the Microsoft HoloLens 2.

Varjo

I haven't used the XR-3 in person (thanks, COVID!), but I did try Varjo's previous XR-1 headset a year ago. I was blown away not just by seeing virtual objects and real environments seemingly blend, but also by the headset's insanely sharp and practically pixel-free high-res display. The XR-3 improves on Varjo's previous display by adding wider field of view (115 degrees, which is wider than PC VR headsets like the HP Reverb G2 and Valve Index) and a higher resolution across the whole field of view (71 pixels per degree in a section at the center, gradually reducing to 27 pixels per degree on the outer edges where your eyes don't focus as directly, which even then is still higher-res than other VR headsets like the G2 and Index). The headset's also lighter because the frame is made of carbon fiber instead of aluminum, and looks to be a lot more comfortable than the company's previous design, with three different adjustment zones to tweak for fit.

The Varjo XR-3 has automatic eye-distance adjustment (IPD), custom lenses that promise to be more glare-free than typical VR headsets, and includes eye tracking designed by Varjo. Hand tracking is also on board, using algorithms from Ultraleap. The headset is compatible with SteamVR and Windows, and works with graphics engines Unity and Unreal. But the lidar depth sensing looks like the most promising feature of all.

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You could practice real-world training (like medical training) while seeing virtual overlays with the XR-3. 

Varjo

When I demoed the previous XR-1 headset a year ago, it could also mix virtual and real, but in a more limited way. I was able to place a car or a cockpit in the same room with me. But that headset didn't recognize objects like chairs or tables, or really get a deeper sense of my environment. The XR-3 could potentially layer VR objects into things seen in the real world with its passthrough cameras, and build an AR-like level of blending that's a lot more intertwined. Much like Apple's lidar-enabled phones, the XR-3 could also scan real-world objects and bring them into VR, too.

The market for intriguing higher-end business and pro-level VR headsets looks to be ramping up, with companies like Varjo and HP's sensor-heavy Omnicept pushing into new territories. Varjo's headset looks like the most visually impressive headset out there. Hopefully I'll get a chance to test-drive one someday soon.