Narrative: AR vs VR
Each narrative page (like this) has a page describing and evaluating the narrative, followed by all the posts on the site tagged with that narrative. Scroll down beyond the introduction to see the posts.
Narrative: AR vs. VR (Jan 11, 2017)
Updated: May 12, 2017
This narrative was the subject of the Weekly Narrative Video for the week of May 8-12, 2017. You can see the video on YouTube here, and it’s also embedded at the bottom of this essay.
Virtual reality has been one of the hottest technologies of the last couple of years. Though it has in fact been around for decades, it finally seems to have hit the point where mainstream VR experiences start to be compelling and affordable. The combination of PC-, console-, and mobile-based VR provides a range of experiences at different price and performance points for consumers, and there has been strong interest from consumers – Samsung’s Gear VR has sold over 5 million units, and the more expensive PC and console variants have sold well within the context of a much smaller addressable market.
Facebook acquired Oculus on the basis that VR would be the next big interface, having missed out on a strong role in the last major interface: smartphones. Google, too, has made VR one of the categories in which it is now selling first-party hardware, but has also provided a platform for its OEMs to build on. Gaming companies are investing heavily in VR as the next iteration of what they already provide across PCs, consoles, and smartphones, and video streaming services like YouTube and Netflix, along with movie and TV studios are producing content and apps for VR environments.
And yet VR isn’t the only attempt to create a new form of reality – augmented reality, mixed reality and other flavors which combine the real world and superimposed virtual worlds are also taking hold. Apple in particular seems to be far more interested in augmented reality than VR, and hot but mysterious startup Magic Leap is also focused on this space. Pokemon Go has arguably given many consumers their first small taste of augmented reality as well as their first exposure to the term, which is still far less well known than VR. And though Microsoft’s HoloLens is today far more suited to commercial and educational than consumer use cases, it already shows considerable promise in AR.
The next few years will see an interesting battle between VR, AR, and other similar technologies, as various major tech companies place their bets on one, the other, or both. VR definitely has the early lead in terms of consumer awareness and adoption, but a big move by Apple or a strong entry to the market by Magic Leap could quickly begin to change that. I know lots of people who far prefer the idea of remaining present in their physical environments rather than completely removing themselves as with VR, and as such I think AR will find a willing audience if it’s done right. But there are big challenges to be overcome even with AR if it means strapping on a headset or wearing cyborg-like glasses. The form factor here is as important as anything else in determining whether AR is met with acceptance or revulsion.
In all of this, it’s also worth noting that no-one is irretrievably too late if they haven’t launched products yet – though we’ve seen some decent early adoption, the vast majority of consumers have never tried AR or VR in any meaningful sense. Once people do experience the current generation of VR, it’s immediately compelling, though it’s mostly hardcore gamers and early adopters who will actually make purchases for now. The big question for VR is whether it can cross the chasm from gamers to mainstream consumers as a whole, which means far better entertainment, education, communication, and social apps. Technological challenges still need to be overcome too – shrinking hardware, improving frame rates, lag, resolution, and many other factors will be critical for creating truly immersive results. So there’s still plenty of time for others to enter the market.
Magic Leap Raises Big New Round of Funding (Oct 12, 2017)
Magic Leap, the stealth AR startup based in Florida, has just raised yet more funding, according to a regulatory filing, though the exact amount isn’t yet public. It has an authorization to raise up to $1 billion at a roughly 17% premium to its last round, and Singapore’s Temasek is expected to be one of the investors. That Magic Leap is raising even more money ahead of what’s been widely expected to be a launch late this year is both a sign that its investors are still excited by what they see, and also likely a sign that it isn’t quite ready to launch and therefore start generating revenue yet. Both Magic Leap and a small group of people who’ve seen its product continue to be very bullish about its technology, but it remains tight-lipped about exactly what it’s building, what form its product will take, how it will be priced, or when it might launch. Hopefully that will change soon, because for now gaming-centric headset VR and smartphone-based AR are really the sum total of the combined AR and VR markets, and Magic Leap has the potential to add an interesting new segment to the market.
SensorTower, an app analytics firm with a misleading name, reports that over 3 million apps which require support for the ARKit augmented reality toolset have been downloaded from Apple’s iOS App Store since the launch of iOS 11, and that over half of those downloads were of games. Importantly, this excludes apps which have ARKit-based features as optional extras and only focuses on those apps which require ARKit compatibility to run at all, which is obviously a narrower set of apps. Around a third of the apps available in this category are games, so they’re being downloaded disproportionately more than apps in other categories. Overall, I have to say that I’ve been surprised by how few really compelling or big ARKit-based apps there have been so far – even some of the apps demoed by Apple at WWDC and the iPhone launch seem to be missing in action so far, including an updated Pokemon Go game. That’s a little disappointing given how much noise Apple made about ARKit ahead of its launch and the high expectations many of us had for the platform. I still think more games and apps will come in time, but things are definitely taking off more slowly than I would have expected.
Facebook’s Oculus today held its fourth developer event, Oculus Connect, and the biggest announcements revolved around standalone headsets. First, Oculus will launch the Oculus Go, a mobile-grade standalone VR unit, at $199 early next year; secondly, the company has made significant progress on its Santa Cruz project, which will result in a standalone PC-grade headset at a later date. The Oculus Go is a pretty compelling new entrant in the market, a competitor of sorts to Samsung’s Oculus-based Gear VR but without requiring a compatible smartphone, and with some feature benefits too. It’s more expensive than Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View, but still fairly reasonably priced. Santa Cruz will offer inside-out tracking and six degrees of freedom, meaning that it will allow a full range of motion and room and object detection without requiring external sensors to be installed in a room as the HTC Vive does. There’s no detail on pricing or exact availability for that product, but it sounds like it’ll be at least late next year before that’s out. With both products, Oculus reduces its dependence on partners – Samsung in mobile and PC for the Rift – over the long term, which is likely to push them further into the arms of other VR platforms, including Daydream in the case of Samsung and Microsoft’s Windows-based Mixed Reality VR platform in the case of PC OEMs.
On that latter point, though, another big announcement Oculus made today was making permanent the temporary $399 summer price point for the Oculus Rift bundle including controllers, something that’s seemed increasingly inevitable as Oculus extended the price promotion. As I pointed out in this piece I wrote for Techpinions a while back, that price point and similar pricing moves from HTC and Sony are making the opportunity Microsoft originally targeted for its VR partners disappear. It’s going to be very tough to sell a basic PC VR headset against the Oculus Rift bundle at the same price point.
The other announcements made largely relate to different bundles and new software. Oculus is updating its platform for the Rift, introducing some new experiences including a virtual desktop environment along the same lines as Microsoft’s recent announcements – something I’m still not convinced most people want from VR – as well as more social and entertainment experiences. It’s also creating a business bundle for Oculus designed for companies that want to deploy Rift and Rift-based experiences, which will come with a premium tier of support over and above a set of hardware.
The big new goal Facebook and Oculus announced at today’s event is getting 1 billion people into VR, something that’s miles away from today’s numbers, which are likely closer to one hundredth of that number. Certainly, bringing the price points down is part of getting there, as is creating experiences beyond hardcore gaming, but it really doesn’t feel like there’s much there yet, which may be OK because Facebook doesn’t seem to have put a timeline on that goal, which therefore remains more aspirational than concrete.
Microsoft today held what it called in its unique terminology a mixed reality event, at which it made a number of announcements. Perhaps the biggest announcement was that Samsung is making a Windows VR headset, which will cost $499 and therefore land towards the higher end of the spectrum of Windows VR headsets, and well into the territory covered by the premium VR rigs from companies like HTC, Oculus, and Sony, a problem that I outlined a while back in this column. It and other headsets will be available in the next couple of weeks from a variety of vendors and at a variety of prices, though none of them at the $300 price point Microsoft originally touted for the space. That’s reflective of the fact that no-one wants to be the Google Cardboard of PC-based VR, as they all want to provide something of a premium experience. Also announced today was the quiet acquisition of most of a company called AltspaceVR, which was backed by Comcast and was effectively shuttered over the summer, and provided a social angle on VR, something Microsoft itself hasn’t had but which Facebook has made an obvious focus with Oculus and Facebook Spaces. Lastly Microsoft announced the number of apps available on the Microsoft Store for VR – 20,000 – and the fact that a basic Halo game will be coming to the platform this month too.
Overall, it feels like Microsoft is finally getting to the point where its VR push is bearing fruit after a lot of talking about it over the past year or so, and that’s a good thing given how marginal its AR push still is outside of very limited commercial and educational deployments. Its mixed reality terminology isn’t going to do it or its partners any favors from a marketing perspective, and it remains to be seen how many PC owners really want VR experiences enough to spend hundreds of dollars on new hardware rather than going the mobile VR route and buying a $100 add-on for their smartphones. Samsung’s entry into the market certainly creates an interesting opportunity for it to take its so far mobile-only strategy further up-market, and based on the response to its headset, it seems it may be one of the best on offer right now for Windows VR.
Sony has announced somewhat out of the blue that it has new PlayStation VR hardware coming, at the same price as its current hardware, but with better support for HDR and with integrated headphones, both of which features overcome annoyances with the current hardware. In some ways I’m surprised that the price isn’t going back up a bit – the recent price drops had seemed to be possible evidence that new hardware was coming, and therefore that Sony was clearing inventory, but it appears the price cuts we’ve seen essentially across the industry lately are here to stay. That, in turn, means that this is going to continue to be a crowded and price-pressured market, with little margin available in the early running as companies look to expand the addressable market beyond merely hardcore gamers, something that’s still proving tough.
Bloomberg reports that Magic Leap is trying to raise additional funding, which might include an investment from Singapore’s Temasek fund (which was one of two sources of the money that recently bailed out SoundCloud), and would value it at $6 billion. It also says the company hopes to launch its product within six months, that it will cost $1500-2000, and that it will sit somewhere between glasses and today’s VR headsets in format and require the user to also carry a puck to provide processing. Though the funding is certainly interesting, it’s the other details that are far more interesting to me – those suggest a device which will be out of reach for all but a few consumers if it launches at that price, and which may sit awkwardly between other products in the market, not quite glasses-like enough to be wearable all the time. By all accounts, the technology is pretty amazing, though whether Magic Leap can really squeeze it into a production device with these parameters remains to be seen. But it’s another indication that truly wearable AR is many years away and we’re in for another few years of attempts that fall short in various ways.