Virtual Reality is looking sharp with the Varjo XR-3

Virtual Reality is looking sharp with the Varjo XR-3

Varjo presents the XR-3 as the product that “delivers the most immersive mixed reality experience ever constructed, featuring photorealistic visual fidelity across the widest field of view of any XR headset”. But how does the Varjo XR-3 hold up in the real world?


I feel introductions and backgrounds are essential to a good review. To answer the who, what, where, and why I’ll start with myself.

My name is Ben Myburgh and I run Sim Your Plane, a flight simulation company, which develops custom software and hardware for its clients.

The “what” of this article will be the Varjo XR-3, which is considered by some to be the Mickey Mantle Rookie Baseball Card of virtual reality and by others simply to be the first and only option for virtual or mixed reality.

As to ‘where’ these tests are being made. Well, the one place where speed, precision, and accurate flying is absolutely essential to all those involved, from the ground crew to the pilots.

Aerial saw flying is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

As a result, the pilots need to train as hard as they work. Rotor-Blade’s HQ in Georgetown SC is where I am reviewing the Varjo XR-3.

Rotor Blade - Aerial Saw Simulator

Why this review? When you’re given the opportunity to test the world's best virtual reality headset (did I just spoil my own article?) in the perfect application of that technology simulating helicopter procedures… why not talk about it!?

The shipping box

I fell in love.

Most companies have this nasty habit of shipping something in a box that you just end up tossing away because you can figure out how to wrap the wires just right to fit back into the tiny little slot they came in.

You don’t know what I’m talking about? For reference, Google tells me there are “About 21,200,000 results” for “how to wrap your Apple Earbuds properly to put them back into the little plastic box they came in”.

After pulling the top lid open I came face to face with the XR-3. Albeit a bit “chunkier” than I expected I just sat there marveling at the beauty of it. The CNC heatsink-like grid on the top of the lens which hides the internal cooling fan just screams professional. The 3 individual adjustments for the correct head position invite you in further and whisper “don’t take me off.”

Plugging in and installing

Connecting to the computer is extremely simple. Two quite generously long USB-C cables are connected to the XR-3. These two USB-C plugs connect to two separate boxes (labeled A and B with matching etched lettering on the plug ends) which split the singles from the headset to two Display Port Plugs and two USB 3.0 Plugs. Connected to the ports on the computer the boxes are then each powered by their own wall power supply unit similar in concept to that of the HP Reverb G2 albeit smaller.

Varjo Software

As with any device these days you need software to run the hardware.

For that, I’ll introduce Varjo Base. Installation was a breeze, but I did notice the few times I installed the software on various machines the download did take some time despite a decent internet connection.

Once installed it’s a simple login menu (much like the login required to access the download for Base). With the device connected I was very quickly greeted with a front camera view of myself. I am not going to cover much of the Base setup for time purposes, but I will say that there are some really cool things in there.

One thing I had struggled with in the past was IPD adjustments as I jumped from pilot to pilot doing the training with the other headsets. With the Varjo I didn’t lose that time teaching each new pilot how to set the IPD. I simply let the Varjo automatically adjust itself each time which is such an amazing feature and possibly my favorite.

Varjo Software

Not knowing any better I also saw the option to use the Varjo inside-out tracking as opposed to the SteamVR base stations. Yes!

Inside-out tracking?

The first and only snag: Google is not your friend when it comes to Varjo setup questions. I thought I had everything set up but for the life of me couldn’t get the headset tracking to work.

Any Google word search combination just kept bringing me back to Varjo’s page about SteamVR base station setup, which unfortunately didn’t help me at all. Feeling a little bit lost and unsure if I would get everything working, I took a shot at a call to Varjo (keep in mind this was Dec. 20th). Knowing full well that my contact at Varjo (the Global Lead Simulation and Training person) wouldn’t return my call till after Christmas.

I was bummed as I thought my setup day was over. Boy, was I wrong! About an hour later I get a call from a cell phone I don’t recognize. Being in business for myself I always answer no matter what and wouldn’t you know it's Varjo!

Not tech support Varjo but an amazing woman who is out of the office on Christmas break but calling me back from her personal number at home to help me with my setup. At this point, I fully understood the price point, the subscription fees, the quality, and everything else that Varjo is.

If you’re looking for a professional virtual or mixed reality headset, stop what you’re doing and buy a Varjo now you won’t be disappointed. I equate that phone call to calling Samsung and telling them your Netflix won’t log in and if they can help you and they call you back within an hour and help you. I never and I mean never expected this response, but I was amazed when I got the call.

So, what was the problem? I was.

As it turns out the Varjo inside-out-tracking is still in beta and does not work fully with SteamVR yet.

As I was told, they expect to have this fully implemented very soon. As a result, one option box changed in Varjo Base, a SteamVR base station setup, and we were ready for flying.

Going in. Into VR.

Rotor Blade - Aerial Saw Simulator

With everything connected, installed, and set up the immersion experience takes hold.

Putting the device on for the first time I struggled with the three adjustment features but once I figured out how they all worked it was a much better experience than I’ve had on any other headset.

Broken down in simple terms here the back knob adjusts the tightness on your head, the top knob raises and lowers the device on your head while the side “clickers” (Varjo can tell me the correct name here) adjust the angle at which the device meets your face.

At this point, I was still using all the other stock Varjo Base settings and was very quickly shown the power of the XR-3 and its mixed reality support. The first view I see is a pixelated background - the real background of my surroundings and a prompt telling me to click any button on the headset for IPD calibration. The prompt says “any button” but I’ve learned it’s the top button as the bottom button cancels the IPD adjustment.

Once complete I see two monitors in the virtual space, much like Oculus’ virtual desktop.

Putting the Varjo XR-3 through its paces

The Rotor-Blade simulator has a standard LZ that I have built to give a representation of what an actual LZ would look like.

Once loaded and the VR enabled in X-Plane I was amazed how much clearer the headset is when compared with what we’ve been using. Everything in the X-Plane world looked simply just better. Most pilots and testers at Rotor-Blade got used to the older “fuzzy” or “everything is grainy” look of the other headsets and we’re absolutely blown away by the clarity and depth perception that the Varjo XR-3 added.

At this point in the testing, I am completely out of words. I can’t fully articulate the seemingly night and day differences we saw comparing the Varjo XR-3 to the other headsets.

Performance-wise, as like most people, I struggled with getting the highest possible graphics settings while not sacrificing the coveted FPS.

We have tried a well-known 8K product and we got truly terrible performance in X-Plane that we shelved it for other lower-resolution headsets.

My main concern was that because of the display power the Varjo had I would be back to the dilemma of struggling to get 20 FPS.

I was amazed to see 50 FPS immediately while using the Varjo.

This was such a breath of fresh air knowing that our bad boy 3080ti/i9 computer could really get great visuals in X-Plane 11 knowing full well that achieving high FPS in this sim is a bit of witchcraft to optimize for.

Lastly, the software that the other headset uses was just terrible in X-Plane. For each pilot, I had to manually adjust the IPD offset to give decent visuals. On the flip side, Varjo Base had such an easy setting option called “Image Quality” that I could instantly change one setting and have a direct FPS gain or loss.

I’ve watched countless YouTube tutorials on how to gain FPS on your computer in VR and always feel like my changes provide marginal results at best. Whereas adjusting the “Image Quality” in Varjo Base I could see FPS changes from 30 up to 80. I finally settled on the standard Varjo default of 59 PPD.

Varjo Software

This setting in Varjo Base equated to ~55-65 FPS within X-Plane. One important note is that unlike other headsets when we saw big losses of FPS with the Varjo they were almost unnoticeable to the pilot. There would often be times while adjusting things that I would see 40 FPS with the pilot not mentioning any performance view change.

Other headsets would almost immediately get grainy and fuzzy when the FPS dropped which would cause major motion sickness. With the Varjo I simply didn’t notice FPS drops. I even used an X-Plane plugin to display the FPS while in VR if I could notice it but still nothing. The smoothness despite FPS drops is a major win for Varjo and something I have not seen on any headset out there.

How does all this relate to Helicopter Flight Simulators?

I was fortunate enough to spend some time flying the Hughes 500D and while doing vertical reference maneuvers and hovering practice I saw that all my flying was done with seeing the intricate details of my environment.

Flying in VR in X-Plane on a 737 transatlantic is… Well… Boring… And not why I would ever use VR. I want to use VR to experience and get the feeling sensations of the world I am in, much like taking a car ride on the interstate vs a bicycle ride through the mountains. One is connected to the environment. One is not.

I felt the Varjo, for the first time, gave me that connection to the environment, albeit virtual, in the same way I felt connected to the real environment while hovering the 500D. Adding further, aerial saw work or utility work is very much depth perception based, the Varjo also unlike any other headset gave me that clarity to judge. Although not perfect, it was a major leap forward that no other headset has given me.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for the best VR headset available on the market the ONLY headset I would recommend is the Varjo XR-3.


Ben Myburgh

Ben Myburgh

Ben is a long-time flight sim user with extensive hands-on experience with a wide range of flight simulation hardware and software. He owns an engineering consulting company and has extensive flight experience. Ben started flying as a junior in high school and went to ATP Flight School to become a CFI, CFII, and MEI.