02 – Urho Konttori: Varjo Founder and Chief Technology Officer

02 – Urho Konttori: Varjo Founder and Chief Technology Officer

Published: 29-11-2021
Updated: 28-03-2023

Shortly after the launch of the Varjo Aero, we sat down with Urho Konttori, Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Varjo. Urho was closely involved in the development of the new VR headset and provides us with information on the new device. How it came into development. What is Varjo aiming for with their new headset? What can we expect from Varjo in the future? Listen to the episode now to find out!

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Urho Konttori

Mark: [00:00] 

Welcome to the VR Expert Podcast. I’m your host Mark Cowles, Marketing Manager for VR Expert. In this podcast, we will be sitting down with innovators, experts and creators transforming the XR world.

In today’s episode, I’m delighted to be joined by Urho Konttori, not long after the official announcement of the Varjo Aero headset. Urho is the founder and CTO of Varjo. He’s a product innovator and program manager with over 20 years of experience in designing, engineering, and managing large-scale hardware and software projects at Varjo, Microsoft, Nokia and AbSolutions.

Varjo, as a company, is focused on revolutionizing reality. Varjo are on a mission to change realities. Change computing for good by merging virtual, augmented and traditional realities, doing so through development of some of the industry’s most innovative VR, AR and MR technology solutions.

First of all, I would love to start talking about how you got into virtual reality and this type of technology. And thanks for being here.

Urho: [01:09] 

Thank you. For me, I’d say the journey started back in the 90s, playing RPGs, reading books like Neuromancer, playing these RPGs like Shadowrun where you had the Matrix, the ability to be there inside the computers, hacking things around. Then, getting hands on a VFX 1 headset at some point, which was pretty cool. I had one for a while, then I sold it at the same price I bought it at, which in hindsight is a bad deal, but it was a very good deal back then. Eventually, in the 2000’s, I joined Nokia for the reason that  they were doing a thing which is called ‘internet tablet’, early 2000’s, and I thought that this is going to be the future of communications overall, a next paradigm.

And I thought that eventually, by going to a place like Nokia, I might actually be fulfilling one of those dreams that ushered from this RPG era, which is being part of the spatial computing revolution. So, for me, joining Nokia back then was a vehicle, in a sense, towards that goal. Then, some years passed, doing phones, doing operating systems, and getting acquired by Microsoft at some point, working with those teams. And suddenly, one day, Todd Holmdahl, who was leading the hardware development at Microsoft. He made a call to me, and asked if I would lead the VR headset development for the Xbox team. I was trying to calm myself. “Yes, I would be delighted to do it.” Of course, screaming inside, “Yes, a freaking dream come true!”

So, that was the next stage for me. I had been working a bit with the HoloLens teams back then, and some other units, so it didn’t come entirely out of the blue. But certainly, a very welcome change from the few years of phone designing and making. Then, eventually, I found myself in the relics of Microsoft together with my other cofounder, Nico Aiden, and we were thinking what we should be doing.

We ended up founding Varjo. This was in the summer of 2016. We’ve been doing the best VR and XR headsets ever since, and technologies overall.

Mark: [04:12] 

So, you started in 2016, and your drive was because you were enjoying what you were doing in the Microsoft VR department, or was there a specific reason that you kept on in the VR and AR industry?


Well, the other founder Nico had actually kicked off the HoloLens originally. So, we were tinkering with the idea of what’s going to be the next big thing, and what we should be setting our sights on. And this certainly felt like one of those big revolutions happening in the industry. When you look, a couple of years ahead, we are now at the stage of the exponential curve in which VR especially has been for quite a few years.

Now, when you start extrapolating that curve, we are now at the point that typical people don’t realize that the massive momentum is now ongoing, and the time that typically people feel, that change takes a much longer time than you thought it would, but when it actually happens, it happens almost so that you didn’t notice that it happened, and we’re at that moment when you don’t notice that the speed is insane right now. And when we look at 2025, 2026 backwards, we will realize that these are the pivotal moments overall in communications and computing.

Mark: [05:45] 

So, the last number of years, you were working on the VR-2, VR-3, and then XR-1 and XR-3, and recently, as we said in the beginning, you just announced the launch of the Varjo Aero, and you’ve been talking about this exponential growth. Can you tell us how this headset came into development?

Urho: [06:04] 

So, we started roughly in the beginning of this year. It’s a good time for us to look at a bit better scalable product than what we’ve been doing in the past, and we felt that some of the things in the VR-3 and XR-3 were surpassing our quality expectations so highly, especially the lenses and the displays, that we felt that we could actually start looking into a bit more optimized VR product, where we could reduce the weight, improve the ergonomics, and then optimize for a singular display, the quality experience.

I think it was in January that we roughly decided what’s going to be the content of the Aero. We did a stripped-down version of the VR-3, weighted the balance of the heads that came with roughly the counterweight that we currently have on the Aero. When we were holding that in our hands and looking at the screens, marvelling at them, we thought that this is going to be a big thing for sure. But, at that stage, we were only concentrating on the professional market. So, we thought that this is going to be more of a land and expand in the professional space.

And it was really only in the summertime that we started getting the feedback from the simulation community, who had been testing out the VR-3 especially, that it seemed like it’s actually a really good product market fit for some of the use cases of enthusiast VR. Hence, we really decided on the spot in maybe July, that we will do our damnedest to get this into the hands of the enthusiasts as well.

Mark: [08:16] 

So, I imagine this is what directed the focus on it, and how you were gonna develop the rest of it. Because I imagine going from the VR-3 to this Aero, there must have been a lot of challenges for the development – price brackets, how it’s gonna work with the prosumer… how did you address this and manage all these challenges in the development?

Urho: [08:39] 

So, people don’t typically realize that in the product making you need to also pass certain certification thresholds that are different for example professional products and for consumer products, and that was one of the things that we still struggled with after the decision to go for the enthusiast market as well. Of course, fortunately, we had a very dedicated, very focused engineers who then did really long days and weeks in early August fixing those issues, and we got the green light to deliver the headsets for everyone.

Mark: [09:33] 

One of the really interesting things that I’ve been reading, because you guys were still able to maintain such high resolution and display quality, was through the use of mini-LCD displays in the headset. Can you explain how that actually worked, and how that actually came into working? Because, compared to what you did in the VR-3, that’s a big difference.

Urho: [09:53] 

Well, actually we used exactly the same panel in VR-3 and XR-3. One of the biggest differences is that those devices have more complex optics that reduces the brightness of the display panels by 50%. So, we’re basically having roughly double the brightness in the Aero compared to the VR3 and XR3 because of the simpler optical parts.

Then, the mini-LED backlight, we developed that very consciously from the mixed reality requirements point of view originally. So, the reason that we have over 2000 LEDs behind each of the displays is that it allows us to update the panel more in the same way as you do with an OLED panel or age-old CRT, that has a scanline that goes from the top of the screen, and then updates while it goes downwards.

So, with the mini-LED backlight, we can do the same. So, first we update the liquid crystal matrix on the top portions of the display, and then we light up those mini-LEDs behind that portion of the display. Then, the update wave continues downwards, then the next row shoots, and again, ad nauseam. So, this way we’re able to get the similar latency benefits for photon in to photon out as you do with an OLED screen.

And of course, what we’re doing is synchronizing the cameras that read and digitize the world around you, we synchronize it with the displays that then show it to you. And again, we do all of this to minimize that latency and that feeling of connection to the world around you. So, that’s the biggest reason why we did it. The additional reason is that you get brighter displays with mini-LED backlight than you do with the typical side-firing backlight. And additionally to that one, you also can get much higher contrast ratios with displays like this, utilizing dynamic aspects of the backlight.

Mark: [12:14] 

And is this type what you’re gonna keep moving forward in your new headsets? You said the brightness has been nearly doubled. Have you received good responses from the community?

Urho: [12:26] 

Absolutely. Sometimes you don’t need to wait for the community response when you use such a night and day difference. The brightness adds a new layer of fidelity, and it’s not by chance that movie theaters and televisions have been going for HDR direction, which is all about increasing that dynamic range. So, making sure that you have the purest blacks, and that the white doesn’t look like white on a newspaper or more of a shade of grey, but more of a form of energy, like looking into a spotlight or something like this.

That’s the ultimate goal where you would want to go, so that when you actually are immersed in a virtual world, you open the door, you step outside – theoretically, you should be able to have a too-bright image so that your eyes would then shrink ,the pupil sizes, and accommodated for the bright conditions. But, I do think that that’s gonna be quite a few years ahead.

However, what this brightness that we get with the Aero brings in the professional space is, for example highlights in industrial design reviews. So, when you’re looking at an object that has any kind of reflective properties, specular portions, specular materials, you’re really looking at how the highlights play on those surfaces. And that really pops up so much better on Aero than any headset out there. It brings the things more to life than you typically do.

So, we were really surprised about that difference, compared to the VR-3 and the XR-3. Not only for other device makers, but there is a significant difference on how lifelike things look because of the brightness.

Mark: [14:33] 

I definitely noticed that in one of the models we have. You can tell the difference when you put it next to the XR-3 and other headsets. It’s quite stunning. It’s very impressive. So, hats off to you guys.

Going back more to the marketing and sales sides, we’ve gotten quite a lot of clients who have come to ask and asked where the Aero actually fits into the existing Varjo product lineup.

Urho: [14:57] 

So, it’s for the cases when you really are looking for the best possible comfort, and when virtual reality is your main use case. So then the Aero fits into those. Or, if you’re going to be scaling the use significantly. So, you have been using VR-3, you are super-happy with it. Now, you want to scale it so that instead of having a few of those, you want to have a couple of classrooms, and then you can gauge the fidelity, see that Aero is very competent in my use case.

Then, with the Aero, you get two forms of cost-savings. Firstly, the headset itself is lower-cost. Great. Secondly, we have been optimizing the rendering stack for Aero for the purpose that it is a singular display, so we can do some things more simply. And also, we have been simultaneously been optimizing other parts of the stack so that you don’t need to have a near supercomputer computer to run these things, but you can actually run it on a decent laptop or inexpensive desktop PC. So, you also get additional cost savings from the hardware itself.

And then finally, one of those funny things in this world filled with chip supply issues, is that the bigger the range you have for your GPUs, the better the availability of those is going to be. So, you don’t have to wait for half a year to get those 100 RTX 3090s somehow scavenged around the world, and you can actually go with a 3060, or even a 20-series GPUs. 2080 is perfectly fine for Aero uses. And suddenly, many of those supply issues actually disappear. So, that’s maybe the third facet that makes a significant difference.

Mark: [17:06] 

Regarding that, one point that we get asked as well, along with the new product, is about the Varjo base subscription service into it. It seems to have a different model than what the old headset would have. Can you explain how that works and what the decision was there?

Urho: [17:21] 

Absolutely. So, with the Aero, we’re offering a very simple subscription plan. There is no subscription, so it’s very simple. Of course, the reason for that is that we wanted to make it simple for small and medium-sized businesses, so they don’t need to manage a separate subscription, and of course for the enthusiast community- again, while we all pay the Netflix tax, in a sense, it’s not natural to be paying for subscriptions for hardware. So, we felt that this was a product where we needed to simplify things a bit more.

Mark: [18:06] 

So far, have you seen companies already getting a return on investment for the Aero? Of course, it’s not been rolled out worldwide yet, but for the companies that have been testing it, have you immediately seen that difference for them, or results?

Urho: [18:18] 

Our customers are super-excited about the Aero. I can tell that the demand has been multiple times what we’ve expected, which is a positive problem, obviously. And it’s really typical, coming from the fact that people have been able to also test and see the difference. And certainly, we see very good scaling activities happening at the moment with the Aero.

Mark: [18:48] 

Fantastic. Now, we’ve talked about the past, the present, and how you got to the Aero. Now, for people who want to know more about Varjo in the future, you’ve been making massive announcements not only about your hardware but also your software, with Teleport VR. Can you tell us a bit more about what the software ecosystem is gonna look like in the future for Varjo, or any plans you have for it?

Urho: [19:11] 

So, when we consider the variety of use cases in VR, we’re continuing the support of the Steam VR ecosystem. So, making sure that the best-in-class, the golden standard of the tracking is available, and you can continue using the additional extension systems. Not only the valve index controllers, but also the Vive Pax, and the Tundra trackers, for example. So, participating in that ecosystem is of course super-important, so that you always know that anything will run on a Varjo headset. It will just look better, it’s going to be a better experience, but every experience runs on the Varjo headset. So, we feel that that’s really important for the continued support of the headsets and our customers.

Then we see really strong interest overall in the landscape of shifting in the professional space some of the computing to the cloud, which is why we launched the Varjo Reality Cloud in the summer, or announced that we’re gonna be launching it soon, which is going to be happening soon. We are now in the alpha phase, where multiple enterprises are using it actively, and getting the feedback and improvements from that collaboration through the stack. We do believe it’s going to be one of those game-changers, especially in the enterprise visualization space, in the very earliest days, and then scaling very nicely to widespread design workflows as well.

Ultimately, you can see that everything will run better when you run it on the cloud GPUs. You basically have infinite compute available when you need it, you can basically take a slider – do I want to have one high-end GPU or one medium-tier? Do I want to have four GPUs linked together? Do I want to have 12 CPUs, or maybe 100 CPUs available? Maybe this time I’m fine with 16 gigs of RAM, but next time the model is so complex I need to have 100 gigs of RAM.

You don’t need to be purchasing anything when you’re doing these configurations. You’re pressing a couple of sliders, and then you wait 30 seconds for the machine to boot up, and you can serve one experience to yourself, and maybe when you’re doing a design review with your boss, you slide it around a little bit, and then you can do real-time ray tracing on the demo and so forth. It’s certainly going to be the future in the high-end space, and then it will trickle down, hopefully, even to the consumers one day.

Then, finally, the Teleport VR is one of our long-term visions on the future of collaboration and communication for the people. The place where we really have the vision, that we want to enable you to feel that you’re present in a different place in the world in real time, so that everything can be happening as if you were there yourself, reducing the amount of travel needed, from the point of view of the ecological aspect, as well as for the aspect of the travel being very taxing to the people, to their families, and of course, a very inefficient of anybody’s time, especially the business travel.

Spending a week of traveling so that you have two 2-hour meetings with somebody is a very common scenario. Our goal is to reduce that as much as possible globally. It doesn’t happen overnight, and the Teleport VR is our first stepping stone on that path. It’s coming from our fusion with the team of the Dimension 10, who have been doing, for the past five years, the world-leading architecture and engineering optimized VR collaborations.

So, it’s very much tailored for professional design workflows and review workflows. We are now expanding that one to bigger audiences outside of the AEC industry. And simultaneously we are developing towards this true telepresence, and on that one we’ll be talking more – maybe already next year. Who knows?

Mark: [24:21] 

There’s so many things to take in. Just before we start rounding off, what can we expect next year? We’ll have the Aero. When do you expect it to be shipping?

Urho: [24:33] 

Aero is shipping already this year. We have obviously done a few shipments to close partners and ultra-important customer cases. But, in December we’ll be shipping in a bit wider way.

Mark: [24:53] 

And for clients who already have the VR-3 and XR-3, that will continue to be supported for the coming year. Correct?

Urho: [25:00] 

Absolutely. Aero is not replacing those products. It’s one additional tier in our portfolio of good, better, best. And certainly it doesn’t fix mixed reality workflow for an XR-3 user. Overall, we believe that all headsets will ultimately be mixed reality headsets. Or maybe they will all be called VR headsets, even though they have the mixed reality capability. Who knows? It’s a much bigger trend on naming things than what a small company like Varjo can influence on.

Mark: [25:37] 

I have to say, I’ve learned a lot in the short time we’ve been chatting. And I would just like to ask where our listeners can find you online, and where they can see the Aero demo, or test it in the coming months, if there’s any way they can do that.

Urho: [25:56] 

So, the easiest to follow me is on Twitter, my last name @kontorri. Then, of course, @Varjodotcom on Twitter as well. I am on LinkedIn, I do reply to messages there as well, but I curate a little bit more on the Twitter side. Where to see the Aero headsets? We were just participating at the Augmented World Expo this week, so that would have been a great opportunity, and many people did see it there. We will have a presence at the CES and many upcoming VR and mixed reality events. One of the good ways is to reach out through our value added reseller network. You can check it out from Varjo’s website. And VR Expert is, of course, one of the esteemed resellers of the Varjo headset. So, do connect with them.

Mark: [26:55] 

Well, thank you very much Urho, and thank everyone for listening. Like the podcasts, please share it, please connect to us, and if you know anyone or have any questions, feel free to get in contact with us. For today, thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time.