VR: Sony, Microsoft and Oculus

Update: E3 2015 revealed quite a lot about the Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens and new partnerships that we didn’t see coming. Read on to find out what it means for the virtual reality race.

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When it comes to emerging technologies, numerous tech companies appear to be eyeing virtual reality as a veritable New World ripe for plunder. The technology itself, of course, has existed for decades in one form or another; however, it’s only been able to offer little more than novel functionality for consumer-facing markets.

But VR technology has evolved dramatically in recent years and the industry is now heating up and heading towards a virtual arms race.

Companies like Samsung, Sony, Google and Oculus are now all names associated with VR for gaming, social and mobile platforms – and they’re all getting closer to bringing their products to market, but how fully realized will the products be?

Now that Microsoft has officially entered the playing field with the HoloLens – which focuses on augmented reality, or holograms – will AR finally secure a place under the spotlight too?

Let’s take a look at how the virtual competition stack up so far.

VR dream team: HTC Vive

In a move few saw coming, Valve, creator of popular PC gaming platform Steam, teamed up with mobile company HTC to create the HTC Vive. Not many have been lucky enough to get their hands on the new VR contender, but those who’ve seen it, have been floored by its superb graphics and VR immersion.

Running the SteamVR platform which has been in beta since January of this year, the Vive is designed to be high-end hardware which brings clearer, crisper images than other VR headsets- and allows for real time 360 movement within the virtual reality landscape.

37 sensors connect to two wireless infrared cameras on the front of the head mounted display, and the head straps are similar to most other HMDs out there. Further specs have yet to be released though the Vive is supposed to hit shelves during the holiday season – which seems ambitious at this point.

 

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Potential Competitive Edge: Just like Sony and Microsoft, Valve and Steam have a diehard following. If anything can push the Oculus Rift off its pedestal, it’s the Vive.

Both are PC oriented headsets and tethered but the Vive seems to be more interactive at this point, with goals aligning closer with the Morpheus’s. Like Sony’s device, the Vive has controllers which brings forth another piece of interaction within the virtual world. Oculus on the other hand seems set on proving it can provide experiences, leaving the peripherals to third parties.

Pricing will be a tricky point for the HTC-Valve love affair. Apparently it will cost an arm and a leg – though most if not all the VR headsets will likely be pricey.

Console gaming and VR: Sony’s Project Morpheus

Virtual reality for console gamers may not get more in-depth than Sony’s Project Morpheus. Reviewers commented that the product feels “more polished” than other products reportedly close to market, including the Oculus Rift.

GDC 2015 saw the latest iteration of the Morpheus complete with updated specs and a firmer release timeline of “early 2016.”

Previously 1080p HD LCD display coupled with a 90-degree field of vision and less LED lights for tracking, the headset now has a larger 5.7-inch OLED screen with 1920 x RGB x 1080 resolution. The field of view has been stretched to 100 degrees, and it now supports an impressive 120fps output (a new SDK will let 60fps images output at 120fps, too).

Like many of these devices in the development phase, a chief concern is the weight of the headset. Wearing heavy VR headsets for longer than 15 minutes ruins the experience with the possibility of sore neck muscles and headaches. The newest Morpheus seems to alleviate these issues by lightening the load and configuring various components inside to make it weigh less.

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Potential Competitive Edge: Sony has its own movie and television studios, a huge pile of cash and the PS4 to its credit. This means the company can supply much of its own content, and that it has a ready-made legion of loyal gamers at its disposal.

While Sony’s initial aspirations for its VR headset seem to be a little more limited in scope than Facebook’s, they are no less ambitious. When the project was announced last March (perhaps no coincidence that this was roughly the same time Facebook acquired Oculus), SCE President Shuhei Yoshida went on record to say, “Project Morpheus is the latest example of innovation from SCE, and we’re looking forward to its continued development and the games that will be created as development kits get into the hands of content creators.”

Promising reports from tech reviews also appear to indicate that there is little downside to the Morpheus at this stage in its development. It would seem that Sony currently is firing on all cylinders with its VR offering.

No longer lagging behind: Microsoft HoloLens

Microsoft also had a tidbit of information to spill about the future of the HoloLens and gaming during GDC 2015. Head of Xbox Phil Spencer led a panel discussing the importance of games on the augmented reality device where he said, “We see this as a full Windows 10 device with holographic capability,”

Spencer added that the HoloLens APIs will be made available with Windows 10 gaming SDK.

The seven year project has been under wraps for a long time though Microsoft is a late-comer to the VR/AR party with its latest offering: the HoloLens. The FOVE was previously on this list as the closest to virtual reality Microsoft ventured into, but it seems like augmented reality is where the company is headed now.

Not much else has been mentioned about the AR device in terms of pricing, but Microsoft is shooting for the same release date as Windows 10 – which is pretty ambitious considering it’s been rumored as June 2015.

Aside from giving the HMD a fancy marketing spin – holographic projections opposed to augmented reality, Microsoft invented a third processor: a holographic processing unit or HPU. The HoloLens also includes a CPU and GPU as well. The HoloLens will be wireless, meaning users can move and interact untethered in the world around them as they simultaneously view and interact with projections. It also doesn’t need a PC connection or phone to operate making the battery life questionable as it’s unknown at this point.

A service called Holo Studios lets HoloLens users create 3D objects, moving and manipulating projected images in space. These creations can then be 3D printed.

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Potential Competitive Edge: Like Sony, Microsoft’s Xbox One allows for a very clear path to market. And if paired with the console, this headset could make for an incredibly versatile device with a wide range of both gaming and non-gaming applications.

Our hands on with the HoloLens provided a pleasantly surprising experience – one that left skeptics in awe at how well the HMD actually works. It looks like it’s past the prototype stage but it still has a long way to go. It doesn’t seem likely to launch on time this year considering the device seems pricey to manufacture.

The promising hardware and software coupled with the untethered aspect – if it doesn’t suck up all the battery life – could make the HoloLens the biggest achievement for Microsoft in the augmented reality space.

If it fails however, Microsoft will have the security of its virtual reality partnerships with both Valve and Oculus.

Industry leader: Facebook’s Oculus Rift

If smartphone headsets are the toe-in-the-water version of VR, then Oculus is on an Olympic-diving-board level. Remember that duct-taped Oculus VR prototype with the bulging cable headdress from 2012? That was ages before Facebook bought the tech startup for $2 billion in March, 2014. The company’s previous development kit for its flagship VR headset, the Oculus Rift (dubbed Crescent Bay by the dev team), was the industry’s leader by a massive margin.

Thanks to a pre-E3 2015 conference, we know the Oculus Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller and Oculus Touch controllers later on.

Even better, the company has finally revealed the final consumer version of Rift along with the release date of Q1 2016. This aligns with the Project Morpheus’s slated launch as well, meaning 2016 is the year we’ll finally see VR thrive at home.

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Potential Competitive Edge: The Oculus Rift has both a ton of hype and a boatload of name recognition working in its favor. Additionally, creating its own controllers is a welcome change from the company’s previously wishy washy responses about peripherals. Partnering with Microsoft to ship with Xbox One controllers is also a smart move for both companies.

The device’s substantial backing by Facebook also ensures it’s not going to be looking for financial support anytime soon. Now with a the double whammy of a release date and astoundingly immersive Oculus Touch controllers, Oculus seems poised to take the VR crown.

The only problem? You’ll need a pretty good PC to play with the Oculus. Aside from the gamer crowd, most people won’t have a heavy duty computer, nor will they spend money on one which puts the Rift in a tight spot.

The VR race: Samsung, Google and Razer

Sleek mobile integration: Samsung’s Gear VR

Google may want to bring low-cost VR to the masses, but Samsung’s Gear VR headset makes mobile virtual reality look sleek and seamless with its dedicated platform.

The big reveal for Gear VR happened during IFA 2014. The differentiating factor for this headset is the addition of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 – meaning Gear VR isn’t a standalone device. In fact, there is a compartment at the front of the device for the handset.

Gear VR hasn’t been a complete letdown and is in fact, pushing VR along quite nicely. It’s helping spawn a mobile VR movement of sorts and with the help of Oculus, the tech seems to sound so far but devs need to step it up and provide more VR experiences.

During MWC 2015, Samsung announced yet another Gear VR making it two mobile VR devices from the company and Oculus. Rather than using a Note 4, the newest Gear VR remains an Innovator’s Edition that will harness power from the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 Edge – devices supposedly even better than the Note 4 version of the untethered headset.

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Potential Competitive Edge: Like Sony, Samsung is capable of putting an enormous amount of funding behind this project. In recent years, the company’s smartphones have garnered an enormous base of loyal followers to rival (or even surpass) Apple’s iPhone. The Gear VR is also the first virtual reality device to make it to market – plus the first VR mobile device to boot – and it isn’t completely horrible.

Despite being the little cousin to Oculus Rift, the Gear VR and all its iterations may win the hearts of the public purely because of its portability.

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvDb0C5pGYI

DIY virtual reality: Google Cardboard

While many VR companies look to create all-inclusive headsets that use their own operating systems, tech giant Google has gone a decidedly different route. The company’s developers wanted to create a way for people to enjoy virtual reality that didn’t involve expensive equipment.

What they came up with is “I/O Cardboard” – a cut-and-fold VR headset that integrates with any Android phone and its corresponding Cardboard app. The strategy takes aim at democratizing the VR movement by putting headsets into the hands of consumers and developers who may otherwise consider products like these well out of their price range.

Cardboard is an open-source project, which leaves the development field wide open for whoever thinks they can improve on what Google has started. The full design specs to create a Cardboard prototype are available through Google for free.

At the latest IO event, Google announced a new Cardboard – one that’s even simpler to make if you can believe that. The app is also officially available for iOS users. Various Cardboard models now allow larger phones to fit as well.

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Potential Competitive Edge: Google’s R&D department is massive, and the company is well-known for its clever designs. It also isn’t afraid to take risks in pricing to get its foot in the door against much higher-priced devices (just look at the Chromecast). Additionally, some industry observers have speculated that this could lead to some sort of VR integration with Google Glass further down the road.

It seems unlikely, though, that Cardboard will be able to compete directly with some of the more advanced and full-featured headsets in the market. Google also has a pretty significant graveyard of abandoned projects, and only time will tell if Cardboard’s headstone will be among them.

At the moment, Cardboard is still managing to stay afloat because of its low price, simple design and portability. Its allowance of iOS devices also allows greater accessibility for people curious about trying VR.

Google teams up with LG: VR for G3

Little is known right now about VR for G3 except that Google software will be used to create a virtual reality environment. The design of VR for G3 is based on the blueprint for Google Cardboard. VR for G3 is also reminiscent of Samsung Gear VR since it uses an LG G3 phone to provide the visuals and sound.

It will also feature a special “neodymium ring magnet” that uses the phone’s gyroscope to let users control it without touching the display.

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Potential Competitive Edge: Pricing is key here. If Galaxy Note 4 owners are willing to buy the Gear VR, G3 owners may be drawn to the VR for G3. But phone-specific tethering could also kill both VR devices. It’s also unclear how well the G3 VR works at this point but the power of Google may help the tech succeed.

Then again, the hype over Google Glass didn’t do it any good since it’s been shelved for the unforeseeable future.

Seeking standards: Razer OSVR

OSVR is Razer’s answer to the Wild West of virtual reality. The company created a new platform called Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) in an attempt to unify those in the VR field, and people who want a piece of the VR pie. Essentially, the open platform is free and will allow third parties to design and build their own apps and hardware across any operating systems, including Windows, Android and Linux.

The OSVR is available limitedly to developers now, with public access arriving later in 2015

But that’s not all from Razer. The company also announced a VR head mounted display its calling the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit. The HMD isn’t close to being ready for consumers from our hands on during CES, but the prototype promises to be modular and like the software, completely open.

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Potential Competitive Edge: If Google is trying DIY VR, Razer is taking it to another level. The company promises it will be modular and like the software, completely open. Design schematics for the hardware will even be available to print out on 3D printers. But from our hands on during CES, the HMD is far from ready for consumers and is still very much a prototype right now.

Will Razer at least win in terms of standardization? It seems like more companies are jumping on board the OSVR train. If hardware won’t win, the software and platform may come out on top.

The final verdict? Still unclear

So do any of these companies truly have a decisive advantage? To some extent, arguments could be made for most of these headsets. Oculus currently is still considered the industry leader and now that it’s closer to release – with its own set of peripherals – it has set the bar even higher.

At this point, Sony’s Morpheus appears to be Oculus’s strongest competition – and though it’s not virtual reality, the Microsoft HoloLens is certainly a big player.

It’s also worthwhile noting that Sony and Samsung both are extremely well-funded where Sony in particular, can leverage its PS4 consumer base to hit the ground running with its headset. Microsoft, of course, possesses a similar advantage with its Xbox One fans.

While its headset’s functionality likely will be used with smartphones, Samsung does have a wide app and gaming environment to help bolster its offering. There may also be other unexplored advantages to coupling a 3D experience with the convenience and portability of a smartphone. Google Cardboard, too, could find itself benefitting from this paradigm, with VR for G3 and even with the Project Tango tablet.

In the end, the future of VR headsets will inevitably revolve around these devices’ ability to make gamers (and then, presumably, the wider non-gaming market) want to use them. That means the goal is making them affordable, wearable and better at creating a compelling graphical experience than the current model. In either case, the public will find out who truly has the upper hand in a matter of months.