AR/VR Hardware in 2019: Stand Alone and Deliver

Termed a “chicken and egg” problem by David Shapton of Red Shark, hardware and software for augmented and virtual reality tech must evolve together. If one side of the equation outstrips the other, the whole industry stalls. Google searches for “VR” peaked in November 2016, but have since decreased–so what will happen in 2019 to put the ripples back in the water?

When it comes to mixed reality, the outstanding impediment to wider adoption is hardware. A bulk of consumers–and businesses–haven’t experienced the benefits of this magic due to hardware perceptions and realities. Trust and meaning have yet to be built. However, there are changes waiting in the wings that will increase access and improve user experience in magnificent ways. From product design to new capabilities to easier-entry pricing, the AR and VR markets are looking at a surge this year.

Computer-Connected Headsets: Setting the VR Standard

Right now, the best VR experience comes from a tethered setup, which requires processor power most people don’t want to afford. Usually when you get a sweet cable package for an affordable price, that price has a short shelf-life. Due to the expiration of similarly offered special pricing, numbers were down for high-end headsets in 2018, compared to 2017.

Here’s what the market offering looks like to date:

  • Oculus Rift with Touch hand controllers, $400.
  • HTC Vive. HTC made a splash at the 2019 CES, upgrading its 2018 Vive Pro with internal camera and precision eye tracking. With prices beginning at about $1400 with all necessary sensors and controllers, the Vive Pro targets the enterprise market. The new HTC Vive Cosmos, is promised for later in 2019.
  • The Windows Mixed Reality platform works with a variety of tethered headsets, of which the Samsung HMD Odyssey+ is the priciest at $400 to $500. However, the WMR experience doesn’t yet rival Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

Wireless is Only a Semi-Solution.

Not the same as standalone headsets, wireless adaptors swap out the cable for a wifi connection. Introduced in 2017, this option didn’t further endear users to VR, but the technology demonstrated the unquenchable forward movement of the market.

TPCast makes $300 wireless adaptors for all the main tethered headsets. HTC Vive also recently introduced its own wireless adaptor. These wireless adaptors still rely on a nearby (powerful) computer, and, unfortunately, it’s still pretty far from seamless. Users report that wireless adaptors introduce a few quality problems of their own.

What About Smartphone VR Viewers?

Screenless viewers have been the most affordable option for average consumers, turning smartphones into the content driver for the VR experience. However, these sales are also dropping: Just 409,000 smartphone viewers were shipped in 2018 Q2, compared with one million in 2017 Q2.

The Samsung Gear VR is at the high end of these viewers. It shares an app ecosystem with Oculus Go, but drains the batteries of some phone models in as little as 20 minutes. Google Daydream View, now in its second generation, offers $99 access to entertainment apps for owners of most Android smartphones. Overall, consumers crave higher-quality user experiences.

VR Standalone Headsets: Oculus Quest and the Path Forward

Standalone headsets are the fastest growing category of VR hardware, and 2019 promises dynamic change for this market. Unlike the wireless headsets mentioned above, standalone VR sets carry their own computing power. And unlike mobile VR headsets, they don’t require the insertion of a smartphone.

Right now, the Oculus Go is the most popular consumer option, at about $200. It comes with a single hand-controller, but it doesn’t track the user as they move through space. The Xiaomi Mi VR is almost identical, with Xiaomi branding for the Asian market.

Oculus Quest–Kind of a Big Deal

The Oculus Quest headset is positioned to open up the VR landscape in a major way. Chipping away at adoption arguments with enhanced features and a competitive price point. Oculus Quest offers six degrees of freedom plus inside-out tracking. Four cameras simultaneously triangulate position and detect a point cloud.

True location-based experiences will be next big wave of VR. Additionally, experts believe the Quest’s success will rely heavily on the quality of its touch controllers. These touch controllers could change the game (literally), providing a similar user experience the to desktop version Oculus Rift. While it costs as much as Oculus Rift, there’s no need for a high-power computer. Facebook is prepared for the fact that Quest may cut into Rift sales, but it’s ready to embrace whichever future its customers prefer.

With a price point of $399, Oculus Quest pops up right alongside household-name consoles like Xbox and PS4. Entry barriers from previous hardware fall and a much larger-scale adoption comes into focus. Add that to no longer needing a computer with the power to lift your house–and now you’re talking.

The Enterprise Impact

With Oculus Quest, it’s possible to create collaborative experiences in the same physical location. For example, 3D imaging in VR for MRIs. Medical professionals can actually move around the visual, making it more intuitive and real.

From a service perspective, selling business partners on using Quest is straightforward. The development platform is simple, it’s portable, and the price point for entry opens all kinds of budgetary doors.

Honorable Mention

Meanwhile, Google’s Daydream platform is promising new stand-alone options for developers in 2019. It has announced that 6-degrees-of-freedom movement will soon be available through its Lenovo Mirage Solo headsets.

Until recently, HTC’s $600 stand-alone Vive Focus has been limited to the Chinese market. Starting in Spring 2019, HTC plans to make the Focus available globally, but it is being specifically pitched to enterprise users. Its targeted uses include training simulators and industrial design facilities. Business users can also explore the Pico G2 stand-alone headset, which uses the Viveport content platform.

Any Seismic Activity for AR?

Interestingly, AR spending is actually surging ahead of VR. In the brief history of these technologies, however, AR has always been more mysterious and difficult to grasp conceptually. Additionally, using smartphones as portals to augmented layering will remain second-best as experiences go. The real potential of AR will not be realized until there is a widely available headset.

AR Headsets: Still a Work in Progress

In spring 2018, Apple was rumored to be working on a standalone wireless AR/VR hardware: a pair of actual glasses. As of February 2019, however, news reports suggest this project may have suffered a setback. (It probably didn’t help when Hololens co-creator Avi Bar-Zeev, hired by Apple to work on prototypes for the predicted headset, quit his position at Apple).

Similarly, Facebook has repeatedly stated intentions to create AR glasses. Facebook Reality Labs Chief Scientist Michael Abrash states that these glasses should be “socially acceptable” (unlike the ill-fated Google Glass), and should weigh less than 2 1/2 ounces. Google Glass, widely critiqued for its awkwardness, did not entirely disappear. It is now in a limited-release second edition, being beta-tested in a few enterprise settings. With the timelines around these efforts largely unknown, it is still a fast-moving target.

Mixed Reality, Blended Environments

Just when people start to understand the difference between the two, the boundaries between AR and VR become more blurry. There are a handful of products that continue to emerge and evolve as XR pioneers:

  • Magic Leap, for example, has been teetering on the verge of revolutionary XR products for some time now. It genuinely seems to be closing in on a realistic consumer product. Its Creator Edition XR headset shipped to developers in August 2018, and rumor has it that 2019 will bring a consumer-grade Magic Leap Two edition.
  • Microsoft is moving forward with its Hololens mixed reality glasses, most recently using this technology in its Dynamics 365 Remote Assist. At $3,000, Hololens is priced for enterprise applications rather than for consumer use.
  • Unveiled at the 2019 CES, NReal’s new XR glasses are positioned to compete with Magic Leap One and Microsoft Hololens. Set to hit the market in Q3 of 2019, these glasses weigh just 3 ounces and will retail for around $1,000.

Emerging Ecosystems Require Flexibility to Progress

You could label the outlook for XR as a hardware-software conundrum. But it makes more sense to be patient with this emerging ecosystem. Facebook has new Oculus avatars ready to launch later this year, opening the door to richer online social interactions. Oculus Venue provides a way for users’ digital avatars to attend real-life concerts, films and sporting events. Australian artist Vance Joy presented the first Oculus Venue concert from Red Rocks in May 2018. This interactive world is designed to be “ever expanding,” which is probably the most appropriate perspective to take on the future of new realities.

An Ideal Vision

The happy place looks like this: VR gets packaged up in hardware like Oculus Quest that is both accessible and affordable to not only businesses looking for new innovation, but also the average person. Transformative experiences that the average person can enjoy alone, professionally, or socially will bring VR out of more edge case solitude. AR/VR holds the promise of changing how people live, work, and play–you’ll be glad you kept an open mind.

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