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.
This is a rare non-MWC announcement this morning, but is interesting in context of all the mobile-centric news coming out this week. Sony has sold just under a million Playstation VR headsets since its launch – 915k as of a week ago – which is really very impressive given the installed base of Playstation consoles is vastly smaller than the base of smartphones in use. It also means this will be a useful revenue stream for Sony – at $400 a pop, that’s $360 million or so so far, which is probably as much or more than Samsung has made from selling / bundling its Gear VR headsets. I continue to believe that the next couple of years in VR will be characterized by a bifurcation between relatively small numbers of sales of high-end rigs from Oculus, Sony, HTC, and the like on the one hand, and larger unit sales (at much lower prices) of mobile headsets. Over time, a third category of standalone units will emerge and take some meaningful share, but for now it’s about these two extremes.
via New York Times
Samsung’s Gear VR headset has been by far the top-selling VR device so far, with over 5 million units “sold” (although many were likely given away or bundled at a very low price with smartphones) versus under a million so far for Playstation VR. Mobile VR is the mass market segment, and it’s always going to beat the hardcore VR rigs on volume, but the performance is often sub-par, and the user interface on the Gear VR has been pretty abysmal. The Daydream VR headset Google debuted late last year was much better in this regard, with a nice little hand-held controller which was mostly much easier to use, though it can be a little glitchy at times. It looks like Samsung now has a much more usable controller too, which should be a big help in making its VR experiences more enjoyable. The new controller ships with a new version of the Gear VR headset, and may or may not be available as an accessory for existing owners (price and date are also still unavailable).
HTC announced this subscription VR service for its Vive headset at CES, but it’s now opening it up to developers. The fact that only 14,000 consumers have signed up to be notified when it launches is a useful reminder of just how small the VR audience on any of the high-cost platforms is today. And I would guess that many users will still end up shelling out lots of money on a per-game basis because the best premium content won’t be part of the subscription, at least in the long run. But a subscription model for VR makes a ton of sense for non-gaming content as more of that starts to show up, although arguably it’s a better fit for mobile VR experiences which are more attractive to non-gamers rather than the big-ticket PC- and console-based rigs.
HTC has another tough quarter, with revenue down 13% YOY, but smaller losses – TechCrunch (Feb 15, 2017)
I don’t typically track HTC’s financials that closely, because they’re so small (just $700 million in revenue last quarter) and such a minor player at this point, but it’s worth checking in from time to time, especially as HTC expands beyond its traditional smartphone business into VR and ODM manufacturing for Google. Interestingly, there’s very little sign of any meaningful bump in revenues or profits from either of these initiatives, which either means that their contribution is tiny or that the traditional smartphone business is declining even faster than in the past. Revenue was down 13% year on year, and the company has had negative operating margins for seven straight quarters and most of the last three years. On the Q3 earnings call, HTC said that it was near breakeven on its smartphone business, and blamed the VR business for the overall losses. It also refuses to talk about the Pixel business at all on earnings calls, citing the lack of public disclosure by Google (which is odd because Google has confirmed it). Regardless, it’s worth noting that the company’s gross margin is just barely in the double digits, which obviously doesn’t leave much room for marketing and other corporate costs. HTC is one of a number of what were major Android vendors a few years back which have faded considerably, and unlike Sony it doesn’t yet seem to have figured out how to make the business work at its new smaller scale.
HTC will launch mobile VR device as follow-up to Vive – CNET (Feb 15, 2017)
I covered HTC’s Q4 results yesterday, and it was clear that VR was not yet making a big positive dent in the business yet. Part of the reason is that Vive, like Oculus Rift, is a marginal play – it relies on heavy duty existing hardware and is itself expensive. It’s no coincidence that the top selling VR headset today is Samsung’s Gear VR, with over 5 million units, because it’s compatible with many smartphones and costs very little. HTC is smart to move into this territory too, though of course if this device really is limited to one of its own smartphones, that’s a pretty small addressable market too.
Facebook closing 200 Oculus VR Best Buy pop-ups due to poor store performance – Business Insider (Feb 8, 2017)
One of the biggest challenges VR faces at this point is suggestions that it’s somehow failing to take off despite a big push into the mainstream, and that’s a narrative Business Insider has pushed before. This is where narratives are dangerous – the fact here is that VR is that VR is still in its infancy as a mainstream technology – other than the mobile flavors, it’s expensive, requires other expensive hardware, and there’s not a ton of content there beyond gaming. But if the narrative instead becomes that it’s fizzling as it attempts to break into the mainstream, that is a lot more damaging than merely talking about a technology that has small but growing adoption. VR can, however, already be fairly compelling as a demo, which is why it’s a blow that Facebook is closing these Oculus demo stations, because VR is really impossible to grok without trying it in person. But those trying to sell VR have to be very careful not to oversell it to mainstream users – it still has quite a long way to go before it crosses the chasm, and making it seem bigger than it is feeds this dangerous narrative.
via Business Insider
I’ll have more on Facebook earnings shortly, and this is bound to come up, but this is a big loss for Facebook financially as well as embarrassing for some key figures from Mark Zuckerberg through the Oculus employees who were directly impacted in this verdict. Facebook will no doubt appeal, so this isn’t settled yet, and it only adds the equivalent of a quarter of the original purchase price to the $2 billion Facebook spent on Oculus, but it’s not chump change. Given how little revenue Oculus is likely to generate in the near term, this will put the acquisition further into the red for the time being. There are also eery echoes here of the Winkelvoss case against Zuckerberg himself, which of course was settled before a verdict like this was reached. Certainly not how Facebook would want to go into what looks at first glance like a really solid set of earnings.
It’s musical chairs week in VR, with Hugo Barra leaving Xiaomi to head VR at Facebook, and now an HTC designer moving to Google to work on Daydream VR there. This is one of the hottest areas in tech, and it’s therefore no surprise that it would prompt moves between companies as ambitious people try to find roles in the sector. For HTC, which continues to struggle mightily on the smartphone front and has only a side business in VR, it may become increasingly difficult to attract and retain talent in the face of an onslaught from some of the biggest names in the business.
via The Verge
Facebook has hired former Xiaomi and Google exec Hugo Barra as its new virtual reality chief – Recode (Jan 26, 2017)
Earlier this week, Hugo Barra announced that he was leaving Xiaomi, and now the other shoe has dropped – he’ll be taking over as head of VR at Facebook. It looks like that will make him effectively CEO of Oculus, though I wonder whether he’ll also be responsible for some of the less platform-specific stuff Facebook is working on, like taking Facebook’s social experiences into VR (Mark Zuckerberg’s post about the news features a picture of him and Barra – still in China – together in such a VR environment). Facebook certainly wants to have a major stake in the next user interface, and sees that as VR, but also seems realistic about the fact that no one platform – Oculus or otherwise – will have a dominant role there, and so it needs to evolve Facebook for VR in a way that works on lots of different systems. Whether or not Barra will run this broader set of VR activities at Facebook, hiring him is a big coup for the company – he’s a well-known and well-respected name, especially among developers.
This is a fun little piece, and strongly mirrors my experiences with my own kids. To some extent, every new gadget or screen-based experience is appealing to them, but VR does have a certain extra something – I think the immersiveness is a big party of that. The reality is that VR is one of those things that’s really hard to take seriously until you try it, but once you do try it, you immediately see potential there. The problem right now is that lots of people are probably having these Day 1 / Day 2 experiences with VR, but there really isn’t enough content out there right now for Day 3 onwards – the novelty wears off fast. Hopefully, it’ll come in time, but a lot of the challenge for VR is that many people will never get the first experience with it this 7-year-old had, and even those that do will quickly run out of things to watch.
What happened to virtual reality? – Business Insider (Jan 21, 2017)
This piece argues that VR is currently underperforming expectations, and hasn’t panned out the way many of its proponents hoped. In reality (no pun intended), I think most of the companies have been pretty realistic about the prospects for the current generation of VR technology – Facebook in particular has said it doesn’t expect Oculus sales to be material to its overall financial picture, for example. So this is as much about inflated expectations around VR that came from others – observers, proponents, fans – than from the companies themselves. But in some ways that doesn’t matter – the narrative was that VR was finally here and going mainstream, and now it’s becoming that VR is falling short of expectations. The first was misguided, and now the second flows from those misguided expectations rather than from actual performance in the market. VR is still at a very early stage, and though Samsung has sold 5 million mobile VR headsets, it’s mostly still a niche proposition today, limited largely to the hardcore gaming market. It’ll take both technological advances and much more compelling content to appeal to non-gamers.