Desktop, Console, and Mobile: A survey of the current state of VR displays

by Will Mason • March 31st, 2015

Segmentation, it’s a common occurrence when disruptive new technologies come to market initially. It happened with the home video market as a number of different products (most notably VHS and Betamax) rushed to become the consumer standard for home video. It happened in the console video game industry as well, the first generation of consoles had seven options for consumers to choose from, four years later – during the second generation – that number had increased to nine. By the third generation of consoles however, the market had begun to contract and clear leaders began to emerge. Today, the console market is essentially dominated by two companies – Microsoft and Sony – with Nintendo paddling around in the kiddie pool doing who knows what. The point being, there is a pattern of expansion and contraction in new technology markets, and VR seems to be in line to follow that path.

Right now we are at a point where the VR hardware market is like a bag of popcorn after about a minute in the microwave – new things are popping up seemingly every second. Looking at every individual potential hardware option on the market is rapidly becoming a burdensome way of surveying the industry. It is much more effective to segment the market into head mounted displays (HMDs) and peripheral devices, with further subcategorization for each. The HMD market is rapidly becoming segmented along three lines: Console, Desktop and Mobile all of which may eventually feed into a common ecosystem (with many experiences being developed for as much cross platform support as possible in order to make them scalable). Mobile VR, in its current state, deserves further segmentation but we will return to that later.

Desktop VR

Desktop VR looks to tap initially into the massive potential market of gamers – one in every ten people in the world is a PC gamer –  who are looking to run the top experiences in VR. This will require a number of consumers to go through a potentially expensive upgrade cycle in order to run the latest hardware. Companies like AMD and NVIDIA are aiming to drive the VR industry forward with their next generation of products like the new Titan card from NVIDIA which has been powering some of the most advanced VR experiences yet. Many games are built in a way that they have scalable settings, but it will still likely lead to consumers investing in upgrading their gaming rigs to the next generation level. Desktop VR consumers will likely be faced with the decision of how much to spend on upgrading their systems for VR.

Oculus Rift


DK1-DK2-Crescent-Bay 

The Oculus Rift is the HMD that started it all back up again. Prior to Palmer Luckey’s creation, VR had be relegated to the lands of bad 90s movies, a forgotten dream that many believed may never come true; in the years and billions since, that has all changed. The Rift, now on it’s (arguably) third generation prototype/development kit – the Crescent Bay, has changed a lot since it’s debut and Kickstarter in 2012. The display has improved significantly since the first developer kit (known as the DK1), resulting in a much crisper and more detailed picture, even when compared to other HMDs on this list. The addition of positional tracking (the ability to lean in and move to a degree through space, rather than just looking around) with the second development kit was a massive change that really helped to enable the feeling of Presence (which is the term used to describe that feeling of “being there”). That positional tracking has only been improved since the DK2, as the Crescent Bay allows you to “walk” around slightly in the environment, but nowhere near as much as HTC’s Vive. Also hindering the Oculus Rift at this time is a lack of a common input device, which the company promises they are hard at work on figuring out. The consumer version of the device will likely ship with some form of input, when that is however is still in the air, and we may see Oculus wait and see how the market responds to HTC’s efforts.

Pros

Great and improving display, solid and improving tracking, likely to have a content delivery ecosystem, wide developer support, $2.1bn in funding with Facebook backing, low cost (consumer version ~$350), extremely comfortable and lightweight

Cons

No release date yet, still no standard input, no “room scale” (will get to that in a minute), cords

HTC Vive

HTC-Valve-Vive

Up until this year’s GDC, the Oculus Rift was the unquestioned king of the VR HMD world. The Crescent Bay is an amazing piece of hardware… that being said HTC’s effort – dubbed the “Vive” is a step beyond what Oculus has currently shown. In terms of displays the two HMDs are fairly similar, the field of view (FOV) on the Vive is slightly better than that on the Crescent Bay, due to the vertical images being larger, while the display on the Crescent Bay feels a little more crisp (the exact specs of either display are not confirmed). The Crescent Bay is also slightly more comfortable and a lot less bulky (the form factor on the Vive we have seen, however is not necessarily the form factor we will see in the consumer release). Where the Vive really has an advantage however is in its tracking and input. Using the “Lighthouse” system, the setup has hypothetically unlimited range (although the system is advertised as having a 15’x15’ range, but adding additional modules will allow you to expand that range infinitely) and allows users to walk around in the room in virtual reality. This fundamentally changes the experience of VR for the better. The input included with the device also adds a large degree of immersiveness to the experience, with controllers that are tracked with pinpoint accuracy. The Vive also will come with access to an incredibly established content ecosystem with Valve through SteamVR. All of this added benefit, however, will likely come at an increased price point compared to other HMDs out there, but at least it has a release date, sometime in mid-November of this year.

Pros

Room Scale tracking with potentially unlimited range, beautiful display that should get better, large FOV, extremely good input, a release date, large established content ecosystem, two pass through cameras on the front of the device

Cons

Currently bulkier design, higher price point, cord management in the living room, requires space to get the full experience

Console VR

One of the issues with Desktop VR is that it is hard to develop experiences for the wide range of potential hardware on the market. The capabilities of consumer’s systems are extremely varied. This is not an issue when it comes to the console market. Right now, only one of the two console manufacturers has made an official play into the VR space, Sony – with project Morpheus, although Microsoft revealed an AR project titled Hololens earlier this year. The console gaming market has been growing steadily over the last three years and VR could easily be positioned to the next generation console market as an add on, potentially reducing consumer’s initial barrier to entry into VR.

Sony Morpheus

With over 20 million PS4s in the market, there is already a solid base from with Morpheus has to work with. Compared with the desktop HMDs the Morpheus stacks up well, with arguably the best looking display of the three, and a 120Hz refresh rate that allows for incredibly smooth experiences. The PS4’s hardware presents the Morpheus with a bit of a ceiling which is exceeded by the capabilities of NVIDIA’s Titan, however it should be noted that you can buy two PS4s (~$399 ea) and have money left over for a games for the cost of one Titan X card ($999). Currently there is no word yet on the price of the Morpheus, although we can expect it to be competitive with other HMDs on the market when it is released in “the first half of 2016.” Other than the graphical performance potential the device also lags behind its desktop counterparts in terms of the positional tracking, which simply is not as good as it is on the Crescent Bay or Vive. The Morpheus will use the built in input ecosystem on the PS4, with experiences using both the Dual Shock controllers as well as the PS Move controllers. Additionally, the device has been reported to be the most comfortable of all the HMDs on the market.

Pros

Arguably the crispest display of any HMD, extremely comfortable, built in input devices (Move controllers and DS4), consistent hardware platform, 20 million plus immediately potential customers, 120Hz refresh rate, potentially much cheaper to start from scratch (upgrading PC vs buying a PS4), release time frame

Cons

Experiences limited by hardware capabilities, positional tracking is not as good as the desktop counterparts

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