How Standalone VR Headsets Will Change Virtual Reality
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.
How are Standalone VR Headsets Different?
Until now, VR headsets had to have another device power a VR experience. This was done in one of two basic ways:
Mobile: These headsets have a slot into which a phone is inserted, and then the combination of phone and headset is worn on the head. This is the less expensive option — the Google Cardboard is practically free — but is limited by the graphics and battery life of the phone driving the experience. The continued growth of Android app development has made the Samsung Gear VR, Google’s Daydream, and Cardboard all popular choices in this category.
Tethered: These headsets are attached to a powerful computer or a PlayStation 4 with a cable. Computers have to provide minimum levels of graphics capability and processing power in order to run a headset, so lower-end PCs can’t support VR. Tethered headsets also require external cameras and sensors to track the user’s motion. This VR option costs more than the mobile devices but can provide much richer and more sophisticated experiences.
Tracking Motion in VR
Freedom of movement is the most crucial advantage that standalone headsets offer. Phone-based VR only allows a user to spin in place, while PC-based VR permits that user to move freely (minus the cable tripping hazard), but only in a limited, predefined area. To track a user’s movement through space, one of two approaches is generally used:
Outside-In Tracking: VR headsets that are tethered to computers generally require users to set up cameras or laser sensors around the room. (Windows MR headsets, which are tethered but use “inside-out” tracking (explained below), are the exception.) These cameras can sense a person’s movements and allow the system to provide immediate responsive feedback. While these high-end systems are able to deliver a stable experience with low latency times, they define and limit the area of movement and require that area to be kept clear of any obstacles that might come between the controllers and the cameras.
Inside-Out Tracking: Standalone headsets rely on “inside-out” tracking, where small cameras and sensors embedded in the headset track the user’s motion. This approach requires no external devices and allows users to move freely through as big an area as they desire. The Pico Neo VR headset also has proximity sensors, which help users avoid bumping into walls. According to Google’s augmented and virtual reality chief Clay Bavor, full-hand tracking is an intuitive next step after inside-out tracking, but isn’t yet ready for consumers.
While most PC-based VR movement sensing is currently done via outside-in tracking, the new standalone headsets use inside-out tracking, providing greater freedom of motion than has been previously possible. Wareable says “Perfectly accurate inside-out tracking is the holy grail of all the ‘realities.’”
How Freedom of Movement is Described
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.
Lower Prices Open Doors
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.
A Standard Hardware Platform, Finally
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.
Battery Life is a Challenge
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.
Power and Resolution
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.