The short-term impact of standalone headsets will be most dramatic in institutional installations, especially for virtual reality in education and training.
VR development has made some tremendous strides but has always been limited by the constraints of the current hardware. Given that, new standalone VR headsets stand to expand those boundaries substantially. For example, when a user is able to move their body freely within a simulated environment, with no cables to trip over, no external cameras to pay attention to, and no tethers to other machines, the experience feels unlimited. This year, with the introduction of the Mirage Solo from Google and Lenovo, virtual reality has finally taken a step closer to that freedom. The Mirage Solo is based on Google’s Daydream platform, which also provides VR experiences to cellphone-based headsets. Oculus also recently announced its Oculus Go, an entry-level standalone device, and a higher-end headset, code-named “Santa Cruz.” The Pico Neo and HTC Vive Focus will round out that market, with releases planned for 2018 (though the Focus will only be available in China).
According to Canalys, shipments of standalone VR headsets are expected to exceed 1.5 million this year, a 500% annual increase, pushing the total VR headset market to 7.6 million units in 2018 — twice the number that forecasters were projecting a year ago. As standalone VR headsets become more sophisticated, their market prospects continue to brighten.
Wareable says “Perfectly accurate inside-out tracking is the holy grail of all the ‘realities.’”
Freedom of movement is assessed by how many “degrees of freedom”, or DoF, a device provides. This term refers to the various direction and types of motion that the device is able to track. Phone-based VR headsets and the Oculus Go rely on the devices’ accelerometers and gyros, providing just 3 DoF. This means that the user’s viewpoint can only rotate around a fixed point. A fully immersive experience requires 6 DoF where the user can walk around within the virtual environment. Prior to the arrival of standalone technology, only tethered headsets offered 6 DoF.
Controls are also a consideration. Tethered VR systems use outside sensors to track the position of controllers (Vive & Rift), while phone-based systems don’t bother with position at all, paying attention only to orientation (Daydream View). It is difficult to reliably track the position of a handheld controller with the sensors in a headset. Most standalone VR controller tracking is unlikely to be as reliable as that to what we’ve become accustomed to with existing high-end hardware, though for many applications it may well be good enough, especially as hardware manufacturers experiment with other tracking technologies.
Another significant advantage standalone VR headsets bring is lower prices. The Mirage Solo is expected to sell for less than $400 when it ships in spring of 2018, and the Oculus Go is even more affordable. The Go’s $200 price tag will bring VR within reach of a new segment of consumers for the first time. These lower costs will affect larger-scale installation like museums, schools, and training centers even more dramatically than individuals. When equipping a classroom of 30 students, for example, the difference between $200 and $800 per unit is substantial. In the same way that Chromebooks have become commonplace in K-12 classrooms because of their price and functionality, the Oculus Go will make widespread virtual reality use feasible in schools for the first time.
Standalone VR headsets also bring a standard hardware platform to the virtual reality landscape. Currently, VR platforms vary widely in capabilities, making it difficult to know whether a particular VR experience will run well on your PC or phone. In the same way that one can buy any Xbox game and know it will work on your particular Xbox, “Made for Oculus Go” experiences will give users confidence that their purchases will work on their hardware. Furthermore, having similar remotes available across platforms will make it easier for VR designers to create experiences that are consistent regardless of the device being used.
One major challenge still facing standalone VR headsets is battery life. A headset tethered to a computer will keep working indefinitely, while a standalone system is limited to a few hours between recharges. Running a VR experience requires a lot of computing and graphics power and drains batteries fairly quickly. The Mirage Solo will get about seven hours of battery life, according to its published specifications, while the Pico Neo promises only three hours. While most individuals won’t use a VR headset continuously for longer than that, this will have an impact on entertainment or training venues where the devices will be in continuous operation.
Another challenge in VR design is processing power and visual fidelity. Desktop PCs can still drive more complex and sophisticated experiences than any self-contained headset. While high-level visuals are not always necessary for an immersive experience, these standalone VR devices may not be well-suited to photorealistic environments. Gizmodo’s review of the Mirage Solo notes that the visual experience is on par with standard smartphone VR. The reviewer comments, “the graphics aren’t going to win any awards for photorealism,” and notes that spinning in circles results in a bit of a blur. However, innovations like Google Seurat may render these limitations moot.
The short-term impact of standalone headsets will be most dramatic in institutional installations, especially for virtual reality in education and training. This is where cost makes a big difference and where experiences can be tailored to the devices’ known limitations. Having a fixed reference platform will make development for these installations more affordable and will reduce the costs of device management. However, standalone technology is clearly the direction in which virtual reality as a whole is headed, and should be a part of any company’s VR strategy.