How Varjo and Volvo pushed mixed reality to its limits

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Last year, Varjo and Volvo unveiled XR-1, a headset truly capable of mixing realities. Urho Konttori and Christian Braun reveal how the companies’ close partnership pushed a technology to its limits

Quick read

➨ Volvo, already using Varjo’s VR-1 for automotive design and prototyping, came to the headset maker in 2018 and suggested developing photorealistic video pass-through. The request was so Volvo’s designers could overlay virtual features onto a real car—while the vehicle was in motion
➨ Their close partnership proved essential for the development of XR-1, because it pushed Varjo further than the headset maker might have gone without Volvo at its side
➨ This partnership between automotive manufacturer and immersive tech developer has proven so fruitful that Volvo’s venture capital arm, Volvo Cars Tech Fund, saw fit to invest in Varjo, thereby ensuring its continuation and longevity
Subscribe now to read more about Varjo and Volvo in the next issue of VRWorldTech Magazine, out in August and focusing on the automotive industry

The story

Immersive technology in enterprise is at its best when developer and client work together closely to develop a product or service uniquely suited to both of their needs. Take the example of Finnish headset maker Varjo and Sweden-headquartered automotive manufacturer Volvo, which collaborated on the development of the XR-1 headset.

Volvo, already using Varjo’s VR-1 for automotive design and prototyping, came to the headset maker in 2018 and suggested developing photorealistic video pass-through. The request was so Volvo’s designers could overlay virtual features onto a real car—while the vehicle was in motion.

“From our past experiences, we knew that automotive manufacturers were among the most demanding customers on the planet,” says Urho Konttori, co-founder and chief product officer of Varjo. Without putting too fine a point on it, he was right.

At that stage, Varjo had already been working on video-see-through technology with Japan-headquartered Socionext for two years. It was the combination of Socionext’s image signal processors and Varjo’s headset display, which can visualise images at 70MP with a 90° field of view, that ultimately led to XR-1, and Volvo’s literal road test.

Konttori says Varjo doesn’t usually countenance full research and development access so early in the process, but made an exception for Volvo because the automotive manufacturer was easy to work with and geographically close—Varjo is based in Helsinki and Volvo’s headquarters are in Gothenburg, Sweden.

He adds: “We also knew from the VR-1 development cycle that they would have lots of ‘constructive criticism’, so we thought it would be useful if we listened to them along the way!”

This close partnership proved essential for the development of XR-1, Konttori says, because it pushed Varjo further than the headset maker might have gone without Volvo at its side.

Konttori says: “For Volvo, each car generation is such a huge investment. All of the design work needs to be done methodically, as early as possible, ideally at the very beginning of the development cycle.”

Volvo became a “very trusted” early access partner that “really helped” Varjo to fine-tune XR-1 and “find the sweet spot” in the latency, Konttori says.

When Varjo hit 20ms of latency in the summer of 2018, Volvo remarked that its designers were experiencing too much vibration when driving the car over bumps while wearing the headset. The automotive manufacturer asked Varjo to reduce the latency further. Konttori says: “That feedback pushed us to advance the technology behind XR-1 to its limits.”

Those limits were dual 12MP cameras that produce high resolution with imperceptible latency of less than 15ms.

And Volvo took XR-1 on the road, with the wearer/driver able switch seamlessly between MR and full VR modes. The depth sensors in XR-1 allow mapping real-life objects and environments for building natural occlusion.

Konttori says: “We’re incredibly proud because our partnership with Volvo led to XR-1, a tool that now works for any automotive manufacturer and for many different use cases. We know that because there are no customers more demanding than automotive manufacturers.”

This partnership between automotive manufacturer and immersive tech developer has proven so fruitful that Volvo’s venture capital arm, Volvo Cars Tech Fund, saw fit to invest in Varjo, thereby ensuring its continuation and longevity.

Varjo is “reachable, reliable and a great partner”, says Christian Braun, vice president of visual art design at Volvo Cars. He summarises: “We can’t develop everything ourselves and the partnership with Varjo brings both sides to the table, meaning that our needs are catered for, while their product is refined to that point of scalability. This partnership was a great way of everyone getting what they wanted.”

Subscribe now to read more about Varjo and Volvo in the next issue of VRWorldTech Magazine, out in August

Main image: Varjo’s XR-1

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