Standalone Virtual Reality Headsets Will Bring VR Into Focus [Updated]
Thomas Gere discusses VR's path into the future in the year it cuts the cable.
As some of you may know, I have a background in software engineering and CAD and have been active in emerging tech field over the last ten years through investments as well as growing start-ups in mobile IoT, AI and, recently, augmented reality (AR) and/or virtual reality (VR). We then have set up the Realities Centre to help filter through the hype and offer environments for the start-ups and corporates to harness those technologies for industry-specific verticals for AR/VR innovation and to learn more about the technologies.
This has enabled us to see where there is real traction, and we have been lucky to run great events, such as many hackathons, to validate industries and ideas as well as build what is probably the largest ecosystem of developers, mentors and corporate partners. I have seen first-hand how new users react to technology, interfaces and experiences through our many public and private conferences, and also having been personally involved in a company that offers virtual reality tours for multi-user property. I have been scaring many IT directors with the account of the number of involved cables as well as the software restarts and computer requirements for the package that would be needed for them to run our experiences. Moreover, I have seen companies finding ways around that problem by on-boarding clients first with a preloaded mobile VR package, which is an all-in-one “case” to reduce this hardware pain, and then trying to upgrade them to a full high spec solution.
6 DoF Room-scale VR Headsets Solve A Lot Of Problems
It is, therefore, out of genuine sentiment that I think that this year’s upcoming standalone headsets that include room-scale tracking (called 6 degrees of freedom or “6DoF”, as opposed to 3DoF like in mobile VR), such as the HTC Vive Focus, Pico Neo and Google Mirage Solo with Daydream (pictured below), are going to really solve a lot of the difficulties that the potential large-scale B2B2C users experienced. As those were eliminated, their decision to adopt VR at scale for their organisation and to deliver to end-users shall be much easier.
Of course, high-end tethered headsets still have an important role to play for engineers, designers, arcades and gamers as they benefit from higher specifications, such as the HTC Vive Pro, which delivers optimal graphics and positional tracking with wireless options coming soon. Those still have very legitimate uses and innovations, such as eye tracking, Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) and more, are key. However, that would be specified in another article.
Instead, this standalone adoption is meant for the schools, retailers, training academies and departments and entertainment centres (although arcades can be included here too), and, therefore, they are meant for commercial mass use. Note that I am mentioning 6DoF here, as I think that any headset that does not offer positional tracking – to ensure that the head and body are fully tracked in space due to the presence of the inside-out sensors – should not be considered. 6DoF allows a minimum degree of immersion, which comprises the VR experience. I believe that 3DoF, although it is cheaper (at the moment), is a dangerous offering for the mass market, and, therefore, it is a no-go as follows: there is a lot more chance of getting sick, it is not as immersive and the experience is a lot more passive. It is bound to disappoint, and we all know the importance of first impressions …
3 DoF Is A No-go For B2B2C
Although Oculus, with the release of the 3DoF “Go” headset, has made some great tilt features to mimic head tracking and incorporate some great UX features as well as social tools, this is not enough. Consequently, we have found that some first-time users have felt uncomfortable after using it, and it is far from being a 6DoF device. Therefore, I think that for delivering VR experiences at scale for education, training, commercial experiences, such as experiential marketing (travel agents, property walkthroughs, etc.), 6DoF standalone headsets eliminate the difficulty of having to run a gaming PC/laptop, setting up the headset and sensors and installing the whole software stack. Standalone headsets solve that and, although they might be missing 6DoF hand controllers, already upgrades that are being announced to make those possible are present, as we have seen recently for the Vive Focus.
The last thing entails choosing which one should be used as a few varieties are available. Although they are all quite similar, they come with content platforms, accessories and an existing ecosystem. However, I would first look at the professional services and innovations that they would be bringing to the forefront. If you look at the use cases that involve education, training, entertainment and arts, HTC Vive has been a lot more innovative and active in those sectors to offer the following: recharge and cleaning cabinets for schools and training academies, centralised remote software control applications for synchronising experience delivery for groups (useful for schools, entertainment and more), an Art and Studio program as well as partnerships with big sports institutions (McLaren and Major League Baseball has been recently announced), and, most importantly, it has made continuous innovations which I will cover later on in this article.
There has clearly not been as much engagement for education, arts, entertainment and technological innovations from the other standalone makers, such as Google, although they do have the requisite education and professional services’ infrastructure to be able to make those possible.
A great recent example of the education sector was given by Paola Paulino at the International School of Nanshan Shenzhen in which she used the Vive Focus to enable students to generate content they had created as well as integrate hand gestures integrations by the XR Pioneer program’ students (see picture below). The elementary, middle and high school students were involved in showcasing their VR Storybooks that they had created with Vive Paper. Moreover, they were the first students to pipe K-12 student-generated content to the new Vive Focus 2.0, which leverages hand gesture interactions.
And this also removes the difficulty in the past to setup large PC VR classes (like Vivedu did last year), whereas now it takes minutes to setup similar size classes with the Vive Focus. In terms of education, such a user friendly and easy setup VR system makes kids more engaged and learn more easily.
Offering Complete Professional Services As Part Of The Offering Is Key
It will take time, as we are still in the early stages of adoption, trial and understanding user onboarding and user experience development; however, those really offer a chance to deliver immersion at scale, albeit of a slightly lower quality (although the Vive Focus is 3K, which is higher than most tethered headsets). But this will keep improving with the increase in the better performing chipsets and also the upcoming 5G and cloud VR infrastructure, thereby delivering all that high-end graphic performance from the cloud itself with the help of machine learning, as I wrote earlier this year on VRFocus.
However, already, a great example of how remote streaming of the experiences is done has also been demonstrated in Vive’s latest announced feature on the Vive Focus as follows: the ability to stream VR from a PC is also key to solving content issue and also wirelessly use it (called Riftcat), so that one can play all Viveport and, especially, all Steam VR games on the Focus headset. HTC advises using this in a modern 5G Wi-fi local area network to have proper visual quality. This also solves the initial low amount of content that can be currently found on the Vive Focus ‘wave’ content platform by enabling tapping into Steam, the largest 3D experiences platform that is present.
Moreover, I have not even touched on the open space mixed reality experiences’ potentials that those headsets can offer while blending VR with the real world for facilitating fully spatial experiences, such as commerce and property simulation as well as entertainment. The inside-out cameras offer a lot of potential for space and object recognition. The most obvious and hoped for (as the device originally only came with one controller) feature was hand gesture tracking for control, similar to Leap Motion. This was also announced and teased as an additional feature on the update for the Vive Focus.
Even more features are coming out, such as the ability to upgrade the Vive Focus’ current 3 degrees of freedom (3DoF) controller to behave like a 6DoF controller without the need for any additional hardware by leveraging the device’s existing front-facing cameras and AI computer vision technology as well as demonstrating the option of streaming the phone screen’s content from the latest HTC U12+ phone to the Vive Focus. This enables millions of existing mobile applications, video games and video content to be enjoyed on a super-sized screen on the top of making phone calls and creating cool social VR experiences.
China Is Leading The Way With Adoption And Implantation Of New Use Cases
It seems that VR innovation out of China really fuels from the adoption that the market has been undergoing (and, recently, it has been highlighted by Alvin Wang Graylin, President of Vive’s China business, showing 85% awareness of VR and great demographics. We can perceive improvement occurring at a great pace, which should result in optimising content and hardware improvements at scale, which is great as it holds the great promises for the standalone headsets. This should, importantly, enable the development of professional services around the setup, content production and maintenance of pools of standalone VR headsets, as the graphic given below shows, in the case of Vivedu’s ‘turnkey solution’ in China.
That’s a great example of potential models that will be released for education and training and will be marketed as professional services in various industries. I cannot wait to contribute to that development as well as benchmark the best practices and lessons that can be learnt from the Chinese market to effectively grow these professional services in Europe at scale.
Update: Some changes has been made as of June 26th at the request of the author.