This is the best VR headset I’ve ever demoed

Before Oculus kickstarted a lot of the fervor around consumer headsets, the VR headsets that were being built for enterprise rigs were multi-thousands-dollar rigs that still sucked. As Oculus and HTC expanded their platforms, a lot of these enterprise-focused VR companies shriveled up or were forced to significantly retool how they approached fat-wallet customers.

Things are even more complicated now; Oculus has priced pretty much every other manufacturer out of the consumer market, and now a good deal of those consumer VR companies are chasing enterprise customers. Microsoft has been doing this with its Mixed Reality platform as well, but the customer base really doesn’t seem to be large enough to necessitate 14 hardware competitors.

Varjo has a unique strategy to stand out from competitors — it’s called actual product differentiation.

The Finland-based VR startup’s new VR-1 headset is a bulky solution that runs on SteamVR tracking but the high-resolution sweet spot that delivers a Retina-type display’s worth of pixel-density transforms this into an entirely different type of product. I don’t want to give this team more credit than they deserve, because the technical solution is novel but not mind-bogglingly complex from a hardware point-of-view; nevertheless, this headset delivers a pretty transformative experience.

The headset works by pairing a more conventionally resolutioned VR display with miniature ultra-high-res displays that lens and mirrors reflect to fall in the center of the user’s vision. The company says this sweet spot (which is about the size of the current-gen HoloLens field-of-view) offers about 20x the resolution of other consumer VR headsets out now. There are a few optical quirks with the current setup and it’s a much different setup than the prototype I demoed in 2017.

HTC Vive Pro versus Varjo VR-1 (courtesy of Varjo)

The company is called Varjo, but the company’s first commercial product notably ditches the varifocal lens approach that was one of the hallmarks of early prototypes. Varifocal lenses allow users to focus on different areas of an environment, including things within a few inches of their face, which is impossible on current headsets. Other perks include not having to wear glasses because the lenses can adjust for your prescription. The systems are mechanically operated, which surely has more potential as a failure point than fixed-lens setups. Ultimately by ditching the varifocal approach, Varjo was able to expand the field-of-view of the high-resolution sweet spot with a fixed lens. Given the trade-offs, they seemed to make a wise choice.

The substantial pixel bump also makes it feel like a completely different type of device. It’s insane. Pixels just aren’t visible, so most of the limitations are what’s being rendered. It’s a decidedly premium experience; the VR-1 retails for just under $6,000 or 17 times the price of the Oculus Rift.

The solution Varjo built out stands on its own for now, but the limitations are quickly apparent in terms of where other headsets can surpass the experience. Future hardware will need some type of varifocal approach and will assuredly rely on tech like foveated rendering to determine where full resolution is rendered rather than a fixed high-res reflection. To VR hardware aficionados looking at pushing scalable solutions, I’m sure the VR-1 feels a bit like cheating, but cheating feels good sometimes.

The VR-1 is, again, $5,995, and that price doesn’t even include the controllers or SteamVR tracking sensors. It exists and it’s on sale now for business customers.