Narrative: AR vs VR
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Narrative: AR vs. VR (Jan 11, 2017)
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GoPro Pre-Announces New 360° Camera for Commercial Use (Apr 20, 2017)
I’m at Facebook’s F8 today and one of the two big announcements from the first day keynote is this Camera Effects Platform, which is Facebook’s first big push into AR. That’s a good thing, because Facebook has so far made its big bet on its narrower cousin, VR, through Oculus. AR has the potential to be much bigger, and Facebook getting into this space will only accelerate adoption and awareness. Sensibly, though, I don’t think any of this will be described as AR in most user-facing settings – it’ll have more user friendly names like Camera Effects, Frames, and so on. But building a platform for AR experiences including some pretty sophisticated ones means Facebook is finally serious about AR both from a first-party and developer perspective, which is a good thing. The stuff shown off on stage today looked much cleverer than what Snapchat launched this morning, and although it won’t all be available right away I suspect Facebook is actually going to be ahead here, especially when it comes to the rear-facing camera. In fact, there’s a possible scenario in which Snapchat continues to do AR better for the selfie camera, while Facebook provides better AR experiences for the outside world. More broadly, this means Facebook will now be a serious player in a field which includes not just itself an Snapchat but also Microsoft, and will soon include Magic Leap, Apple, and many others too. There are therefore big questions to ask about who will be able to attract developers and help them get a return on their investment with good monetization. I would expect to see some similar stuff from Apple at WWDC in June and possibly even more in September with new iPhone hardware too.
Microsoft’s cheaper mixed reality experience is similar to HoloLens, but there are limitations – Mashable (Apr 7, 2017)
When Microsoft held its Surface event back in October last year, one of the quick announcements it made towards the end was that OEMs would be producing VR headsets starting at $299. At the time, I said “Microsoft’s promotion of VR headsets from its OEM partners today is the first sign we’ve seen that Microsoft might be rethinking its focus on augmented rather than virtual reality. Given that HoloLens is likely to continue to struggle to achieve mainstream appeal, supporting a more consumer-friendly VR push by laptop makers is a smart move, although $299 PC-based VR solutions may struggle against smartphone-based versions at $100-200 which are more portable.” I still feel pretty much the same way about this, and it’s interesting that – despite the Windows Mixed Reality branding – these are basically VR rather than AR headsets. That’s a concession that VR is where the action is today, is the space at least some consumers already understand, and is frankly where all the content is today too. These new devices also reinforce the obvious compromises made when bringing price points down: the lower PC standards and cheaper hardware will make these VR headsets less powerful than either HoloLens or Oculus or HTC Vive hardware. There’s therefore an important question about whether this in-between space will gain any traction versus the cheap and basic mobile VR experiences provided by Gear VR and Daydream VR at one end and the high-end stuff being produced by HTC, Oculus, and Playstation.
It’s unfortunate that we have to rely on stats from a porn site to measure VR market share, but beggars can’t be choosers. Obviously, there may be reasons why the usage this site sees isn’t representative of the market as a whole, but the numbers here are far from surprising: Gear VR is by far the largest chunk of usage, which absolutely aligns with the numbers we’re seen in terms of devices sold / in use. Google’s Daydream, meanwhile, has a tiny fraction of the market, which is also unsurprising given its relative newness and the limited distribution of headsets and compatible phones. Gear VR has become the de facto standard for Android VR and mobile VR more broadly, and Daydream VR will only do well if essentially every other Android vendor supports it in their handsets and pushes it aggressively to consumers. So far, that hasn’t happened, with predictable results.
Apple GPU Supplier Imagination Tech Says Apple Plans to Build its Own GPU in 1-2 Years (Apr 3, 2017)
This already feels likely to be one of the biggest news items of the week (incidentally, you can now use the Like button below to vote for this post if you agree – the posts that get the most votes are more likely to be included in my News Roundup Podcast at the end of the week). There have been ongoing reports that Apple would like to build more of its own in-house technology, and GPUs have seemed at least a candidate given that Apple was said for a while to be mulling an acquisition of the company, and has been bringing Imagination Tech employees on board since the deal didn’t go ahead. The GPU obviously has a number of existing applications, but GPU technology has increasingly been used for AI and machine learning, so that’s an obvious future direction, along with Apple’s reported investment in AR. Apple’s ownership of its A-series chips (and increasingly other chips like its M and W series) is a key source of competitive advantage, and the deeper it gets into other chip categories, the more it’s likely to extend that advantage in these areas. This is, of course, also a unique example of Apple making a direct statement about a future strategy (albeit via a third party): as Apple is IMG’s largest customer, it had to disclose the guidance from Apple because it’s so material to its future prospects – the company’s share price has dropped 62% as of when I’m writing this.
Samsung Updates Gear VR and Gear 360 Camera (Mar 29, 2017)
Two other smaller announcements from Samsung today on top of its phone and smart home announcements concern its VR and 360 degree camera accessories, both of which got an update today. The Gear VR is easily the VR headset with the biggest base today, thanks largely to its aggressive pricing and bundling by Samsung in combination with its smartphones. That doesn’t mean it’s the best experience out there, and in fact it’s been a somewhat frustrating one because the controller was an awkward trackpad on the side of the headset. But the new version solves that with what looks like a really good separate hand-held controller, along with other improvements. This is the same approach as the Google Daydream View takes, and it works very well in that device, so this should make the Gear VR better too. The Gear 360 debuted last year, but was pretty limited, being designed more for stationary use at, say, a party rather than as an action camera for use on the go. The new version has 4K video and a new design better suited for on-the-go use. As with the other announcements, we’ll have to wait until reviews come out to know whether they’ll deliver on the promise (and I’ll be testing the Gear 360 I picked up at the event today shortly), but on paper these should be decent upgrades on their predecessors.
There’s not a ton here that’s new about Apple and Facebook’s efforts, but the article does share some new details about Magic Leap, which is said to be getting ready to launch this year at a price point north of $1000. As I’ve said before, for all the complaints from Magic Leap that people are underestimating its technology, until it actually shows more than a few hand-picked people, those complaints are unreasonable. This is a company that has massively hyped its own product (including releasing rendered rather than actual footage) while refusing to share any actual details about its product. There certainly are people (some of them investors) who appear to be very impressed by it, but not until it launches will mainstream tech reporters and others know whether the product lives up to the hype. In the meantime, other companies like Apple and Facebook are ramping up their efforts, and even though Magic Leap may well beat them to market, it’s a small company with no brand recognition, and it will have to blow people away en masse if it’s to take a meaningful lead in the market when it launches.