YouTube Makes Series of Announcements at VidCon (Jun 23, 2017)
IDC Forecasts Strong Growth for AR and VR Headsets, with VR and Commercial AR Biggest (Jun 19, 2017)
Sony Announces 1 million Playstation VR Sales (Jun 7, 2017)
Microsoft Announces Dell, Asus, and Lenovo VR Headsets (May 31, 2017)
Though Google spent much of its I/O keynote talking about apps and features like Photos and the Assistant, it did devote a few minutes to the topic of AR and VR, which will have a second deeper-dive keynote of their own tomorrow. On the VR side, the key announcement is that Google is extending the Daydream platform beyond mobile VR to standalone headsets, which in the first instance will be built by partners Lenovo and HTC and supported with chips from Qualcomm. Daydream so far has been limited by the fact that the biggest Android smartphone vendor has its own competing platform, so the news that Samsung’s Galaxy S8 phones will support Daydream through a software update in the summer is a big deal. My guess is that Samsung will still favor its own Gear VR system with its usual bundling and discounting deals, but the fact that Daydream View and other compatible headsets will now work with Samsung devices should increase its appeal. Daydream’s system is better than Samsung’s in a number of ways, though the recent Gear VR update closes the gap a bit, so the playing field should be a leveled a little going forward. Also worth noting are a couple of AR announcements, including a new “Tango phone” to support Google’s indoor mapping technology, and VPS, an indoor equivalent of GPS which will enable precise directions within large stores and the like. Neither of those feels remotely mass market yet, which means Google’s AR efforts are far more marginal than the phone-based efforts from Facebook and Snapchat (and likely soon Apple too). Interestingly, VR head Clay Bavor outlined his vision for the space in a blog post today too, and it’s remarkably similar to Microsoft’s in that it envisions a continuum or spectrum that includes both VR and AR, though Bavor’s favored term is immersive computing rather than mixed reality and he’s less pejorative about the VR and AR terms everyone is already using.
Weekly Narrative Video – AR vs VR (May 12, 2017)
This week’s Narrative Video covers the “AR vs VR” narrative, and is available now to subscribers on the AR vs VR narrative page. In this video, I discuss the debate about terminology between AR, VR, and Microsoft’s preferred “Mixed Reality”. But I also talk about the current state of both VR and AR and how I see both playing out over the rest of the year. The narrative has been in the news this week, with Microsoft making announcements about mixed reality at Build, and Magic Leap both reaching out to developers and creatives and allegedly readying another round of funding. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial to see this and other Weekly Narrative Videos, all this week’s posts and the narrative essays, which are exclusive to subscribers.
Magic Leap Invites Developers and Creatives to Get in Touch (May 11, 2017)
GoPro Pre-Announces New 360° Camera for Commercial Use (Apr 20, 2017)
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.
Oculus founder Palmer Luckey is leaving Facebook – Recode (Mar 30, 2017)
This isn’t a huge surprise – Luckey has been very quiet at Facebook over the past year or so, and especially since he was in the news a while back for allegedly funding and/or creating some political material during last year’s presidential election. It’s also important to note that he hasn’t had a clear managerial role at Facebook/Oculus since he arrived there, with others taking on the day to day responsibility for moving the product forward. So in some ways his departure is probably a good thing for Facebook, which has seemed reticent to associate itself directly with him in recent months.
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.
Microsoft has apparently renamed its Windows Holographic platform as Windows Mixed Reality, which seems to be a reflection of the broadening of the platform from its original narrow AR focus to something broader, including the release of a number of VR headsets that was announced a couple of months ago. At the time, I saw that as a concession that Microsoft’s original vision wasn’t coming to fruition fast enough or at big enough scale, and that it needed to broaden its scope to encompass the areas that are hotter in the short term, notably VR. That was particularly important for its OEM partners, most of whom were never going to build a HoloLens like headset but who likely wanted to build more accessible VR gear. This name change reinforces my sense that Microsoft is realizing that it needs to think more broadly if it wants to play a serious role here in the near term, and that probably also means building more first party VR gear for Xbox among other things.
Oculus Drops Price of Rift and Controllers by $100 Each (Mar 1, 2017)
I’ve just had a little debate with myself (and with some others on Twitter) as to which site to link to for this news – lots provided essentially the same information in my Twitter feed at roughly the same time, and I was left with a choice of a site with a paywall, a site with egregious auto play videos, or a site with more superficial coverage. The news itself is interesting – Facebook/Oculus is reducing the price of both the Rift and the controller by $100 each for a total discount of $200 and a new combined price of $598, which puts it below the price for the $799 HTC Vive, but above the $399 price of the Playstation VR. The combined price of a console or PC plus headset is still lowest for Playstation by quite a distance, helping explain why the latter is selling so well, especially with a large installed base of consoles. Oculus insists it’s not reducing the price because of poor sales, and it’s been saying for months Oculus sales wouldn’t be material to Facebook’s overall business for years, so there’s some credibility to its claim that it’s just executing on a longer-term plan here. Even Sony’s nearly 1 million sales are still very small in the context of any other mainstream consumer electronics category, which is a useful reminder of VR’s relative immaturity. But lower prices will help accelerate things a bit, as well installment plans like the one HTC announced this week.
HTC is making several announcements at the GDC gaming conference, but to my mind the most interesting is its installment plan for paying for a Vive headset. Instead of paying a lump sump of $799, would-be buyers can now pay $66 per month for 12 months, much as many of us now pay for our phones. One of the criticisms (and limitations) of early high-end VR is the price, but of course an iPhone 7 Plus or Samsung S7 Edge or Pixel XL comes in at $750-770, and we don’t all balk at that price, because none of us pays it upfront. Installment plans make these purchases a lot more palatable, and that’s going to be important for reducing the barriers to adoption here. That doesn’t mean we’re all going to rush out and buy one of these, not least because it still requires a high-end PC as well, but this kind of small step will help accelerate the spread of VR just a little bit.