Virtual reality as sharp as the human eye can see?

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Finnish start-up Varjo has developed a prototype virtual reality (VR) headset that its makers claim gives an image 50 times sharper than most other headsets currently on the market.

When I tested the prototype - looking round the virtual cockpit of a passenger plane - the level of detail in the small central area of vision was certainly impressive - as close to the real thing as I've come across.

Image quality outside this area, simulating standard VR headsets, was noticeably fuzzier.

Founder and chief executive Urho Konttori says the firm has managed to achieve this by mimicking how the eye sees.

"The human eye only focuses on a thumbnail-sized area of vision - the brain fills in the rest," he says. "Our peripheral vision is less detailed, at a much lower resolution."

So Varjo's headset provides very high definition images only of the objects our eyes are focusing on at any particular moment, the rest of the scene is at lower resolution. It uses eye-tracking technology to tell which parts of the image it needs to render in high definition.

This technique is known as foveated rendering within the industry - chipmaker Nvidia has been working on it for a few years.

This selective approach uses a lot less computing power, says Mr Kontorri - roughly 25% less than current VR headsets.

But this level of detail doesn't come cheap - headsets will cost between €5,000 and €10,000 (£4,350 and £8,700) - so the Helsinki-based firm is targeting corporate customers, such as aircraft manufacturers, carmakers, architects, construction firms and the entertainment industry.

"VR visualisation - looking at designs of cars, buildings, cityscapes in high-definition 3D - will become a key part of the design process for business," says Brian Blau, VR analyst for research firm Gartner.

Mr Kontorri, who used to work for Microsoft and Nokia, is hoping that simulator training for aircraft pilots and other professionals could be made a lot cheaper using VR in addition to training on traditional full-scale simulators.

"Fully functional cockpit simulators can cost around €10m so there aren't many around, and access to them is limited," he says. "Using our system could bring the total cost of training to around €100,000."

Carmakers BMW, Audi and Volkswagen have all asked for early access to the technology so they can help develop the prototype, says Mr Kontorri. And aerospace firms Saab and Airbus have also expressed interest. Game development platforms Unreal and Unity are technical partners.

But of course, a prototype is not the same as a final product.

Varjo, which has attracted more than $15m (£11m) in funding so far, is aiming to bring a final version to market by the end of 2018.

And rivals are exploring a similar approach.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, for example, has teamed up with eye-tracking firm Tobii to develop headsets that concentrate graphical processing power to where the user is looking

The image quality of the peripheral vision is reduced without the user noticing.

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