Google, Facebook and Microsoft Line Up For VR Standalone Push

by Ian Hamilton • September 30th, 2017

Over the next two weeks we are expecting major announcements related to VR from Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

It couldn’t come at a better time for VR developers who spent the summer reading headline after headline about how VR is dead, fulfilling the prediction of Unity CEO John Riccitiello that journalists couldn’t stop themselves from writing negatively about the gap between analyst estimates and actual sales in the first year or so of VR’s mainstream adoption. The so-called “gap of disappointment” was made possible by analysts who model the growth of the industry in a straight line whereas Riccitiello suggested it is far more likely to see more of a curve to adoption — a slow start that suddenly ramps at an accelerated pace.

What will drive the adoption curve is the arrival of affordable standalone VR systems that require no PC or phone to operate. We’ll see the first of these arrive in the next few months. These, too, might start off with meager adoption as the first systems will likely make sacrifices in functionality, but over the next year or two we can expect a rapid increase in capabilities as new systems arrive that will offer an all-in-one package and none of the drawbacks of current VR systems.

Here’s what to expect from announcements over the next two weeks.

Microsoft

Halo is coming to Microsoft-based immersive systems.

On Oct. 3 (Tuesday morning) Microsoft will give one final overview of its mixed reality strategy before its manufacturing partners, later this month, start shipping inexpensive but surprisingly capable PC-based virtual reality headsets. We know headsets are on the way from Dell, Lenovo, HP, Acer, ASUS and we’ve seen another leaked from Samsung. Pricing starts around $300 and they work with hand controllers which dramatically increase a sense of interactivity and overall immersion. These systems are compatible with Microsoft’s Windows 10 “mixed reality” platform, promising compatibility with both the Windows Store and Steam. There is a stellar line up of content on tap.

While all these headsets are expected to have a wired connection to a PC we know Microsoft is keenly aware of the value of a standalone system. It leads the augmented reality market with the standalone HoloLens. While HoloLens isn’t going for mass appeal as it costs $3,000, its tracking system locked Intel out of the market as it was being adapted to these less expensive PC-based VR headsets.

Microsoft is also expected to roll out the Xbox One X in November. At E3 2016, Microsoft suggested its future Xbox would be capable of high quality VR, but by E3 2017 there wasn’t a word about this feature. In between these events Microsoft revealed its partner strategy for Windows-based tethered VR headsets. Meanwhile AMD, which provides some of the processing chips inside the Xbox One X, purchased Nitero. Nitero made wireless technology specifically tuned to make VR headsets wireless while still offering high fidelity. The technology was good enough that it received investment from Valve before the acquisition. Could the Xbox One X have Nitero technology buried inside?

Microsoft is in a tricky place because its partners might be hurt if the company revealed a plan for the Xbox One X to support wireless VR in 2018 at the same time partners start shipping wired PC headsets. In fact, Microsoft has been so unclear on this it’s possible the Xbox One X ultimately won’t work with VR at all.

Nonetheless, Microsoft’s late 2017 entry into the PC VR market aims to hit a sweet spot between price, ease of setup and functionality that Facebook’s Oculus and HTC’s Vive have yet to match. The biggest remaining limitation to Microsoft’s approach — and thus the size of the VR market — is the wired connection. And Microsoft has the partnerships and technology lead needed to make that wire disappear very soon.

Google

On Oct. 4 (Wednesday morning) Google will reveal its product lineup for the holiday season.

Google’s Daydream View

Google just acquired a team from HTC responsible for the creation of the Pixel smartphone. Earlier this year the ad giant also acquired Owlchemy Labs, the creator of Job Simulator and Rick & Morty VR. During its developer conference earlier this year, Google revealed its WorldSense tracking technology ideal for VR and AR headsets.

We can reasonably expect a new version of the Pixel phone, perhaps a new Daydream headset and details around the first standalone VR headsets powered by Google that are expected to arrive at the end of this year from manufacturers like HTC. That said, we don’t know how you’ll interact with virtual worlds you visit inside these standalone systems.

Intel’s cancelled Alloy VR headset used an awkward combination of a headset that allowed full freedom of movement throughout a room with a hand controller that could only sense limited movement. It doesn’t feel right to be able to move your head around a virtual world freely but when you reach out and try to grab something that movement isn’t captured in the virtual world. That’s what it might feel like if Google used WorldSense tracking for a headset paired with its current Daydream controller.

Google is likely very aware of this limitation and spent years working on its computer vision technologies. So it is not out of the realm of possibility for the company to have figured out an immersive solution to this limitation with its next VR headsets.

Facebook’s Oculus

On Oct. 11 and 12 Facebook’s Oculus will be hosting Oculus Connect 4. The fourth developer conference from Facebook’s VR division will see a range of sessions and presentations outlining next steps from the company. It will also likely unleash a new VR headset prototype for developers and/or journalists to try. Last year this prototype was called Santa Cruz — a standalone headset that mashed together parts of the Rift and mobile efforts at Facebook. It offered movement freedom throughout a room.

Earlier this year reports emerged that Facebook was aiming for a $200 standalone that might be similar to the Gear VR. This system is likely not the future of Santa Cruz. In other words, Oculus is actively developing a range of standalone systems targeting both high and low ends.

In some ways Facebook is playing catch up to Microsoft and Google. Oculus was acquired by Facebook in 2014 and has gone through an integration process that saw many employees upend their lives in Orange County, where Oculus was headquartered, and move closer to Facebook’s offices in Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, a huge injection of cash from Facebook led to the addition of lots of new people to the team alongside management restructuring. All this happened while teams at Google and Microsoft toiled away at some of the core problems, like computer vision, that Facebook would ultimately need to solve too.

What makes Facebook different from the efforts we’re seeing from Microsoft and Google is that the company doesn’t have any of the baggage from Android or Windows to support in developing its new ecosystem of standalone VR headsets. Facebook gets a fresh start. The VR decision makers at the company are theoretically free to make choices that are best for the developers building for these systems and for the people who are buying them. When it comes to standalone VR headsets, Facebook’s teams likely won’t have to decide whether something works well with Android or Windows.

Hopefully on Oct. 11 and 12 we’ll see what that difference really means.

Update: Additional context added to the Microsoft section about what it might do with the Xbox One X.

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  • Firestorm185

    Lot of good reminders here. Can’t wait to see what all 3 companies come up with. ^^

  • impurekind

    I’m really hoping Oculus shows off some new VR headsets and other cool stuff at this year’s Oculus Connect 4.

  • 12Danny123

    Only these companies have the push to Standalone HMDs.

    Facebook through (GearVR software which Oculus owns)
    Google through Daydream and OS control
    Microsoft through OS control optimising it for standalone HMD.

    As you can see Valve is not in this list. Because they don’t control a mainstream mobile store or any OS.

    • RFC_VR

      It’s an interesting split with smartphone VR, PC VR and now forthcoming standalone hmd (containing Qualcomm SOC).

      Price is critical for standalone? If people are going to pay premium smartphone money (£600-700) for standalone (single purpose device) will it be widely adopted? Even £400-500 could be deemed expensive.

      You can use Galaxy or Pixel for lots more than VR, and PC is multiple use machine. Makes costs easier to swallow when compelling, quality content still sparse.

      • polysix

        I can see them (eventually) wanting to LOCK DOWN standalones (like consoles) so you have DRM on board and total control over software and revenue = ability to sell the hardware dirt cheap and lock you in + make tons of cash back on the software.

        For me that’s not so interesting, I love being able to use the PC and do anything I want (inc UE4 for dev or just messing around) with a rift. Clearly though VR as a mainstream product has to go another direction until we have PC power in standalones or a lot cheaper for joe public.

        • RFC_VR

          Yes PC is damn good multi tool. I’m currently using a NUC with Win 10 whilst waiting to build a HEDT for next generation PC VR and development.

          Compute power for VR is expensive, how many consumers even have high end smartphone? For many the most powerful device is their phone unless business user with fast laptop.

          Your suggestion of cheap hardware/recoup through software (console model) makes total sense. Like “ready player one” where basic hardware free.

    • kontis

      Just like PC and Console gaming became irrelevant because of far more popular mobile gaming. Many analysts expected that to happen years ago, because OBVIOUSLY you cannot have both type of solutions doing well in their markets. Analysts thought that gaming is just gaming. It’s just the same thing no matter what you use. Just like you seem to think that mobile VR and PC VR will have the same exact experience to offer, so there is no point for PC VR to exist or be relevant. Abrash and Sweeney don’t agree with this notion, but what do they know.

      • 12Danny123

        I never said that PC VR will get replaced. I said that Valve will become a Tiny player in the market, due to the fact that those 3 companies are battling out for the top in API standard, platform and Store.

        • It all comes back to Steam, really. No store beats Steam in popularity. So Steam VR stays relevant especially w/ the Knux controllers, base stations and Vave knack for improving their tech and keeping up w/ the times.

          Steam VR games shall always exists whether its OpenVR or OpenXR or w/e that is.

          And Steam VR is jus licensed tech used by headset manufacturers. They are in competition w/ no one. All they care about is Steam sales, really and pushing VR forward.

          Seems like valve shall continue to adapt. They already have the tough to beat knuckles controller.

          • 12Danny123

            Except the competition is already moving on towards getting into as many VR form factors as possible, You can see Google moving from mobile to standalone VR and Oculus moving from PC/Mobile to Standalone and Microsoft from PC/Console to Mobile and Standalone.

            It’s no longer about being the best, it’s about enforcing a standard across the VR industry and not a specific VR form factor.

            How can Valve be the standard where it’s standard can’t adapt. Be it OpenVR or SteamVR

          • But do ye honesty think PC shall be left w/o the VR games on these platforms?

            XBox shares it’s exclusives w/ PC seen on Steam like Killer Instinct.

            These headsets are gonna need to play current VR titles like Fallout VR.

            That’s where Steam VR comes in.

            Also, major game devs cannot ignore PC VR either. And Steam VR connects them all.

            Steam VR could very well be at the core as it allows all HMDs to run all games.

            None of that console BS.

            Although there would be exclsuive son some headsets, there shall be many games for all HMDs through Steam VR.

            And the Steam VR tech is very convenient to use. Bet most would prefer Knuckles controller/Base Stations over anything else.

            So HMD makers shall continue to use team VR tech na dmaybe other HMDs can use it too through Steam VR.

          • 12Danny123

            I agree there will be a place for SteamVR. Just not the mainstream audience. What can SteamVR do for partners that Windows MR already doesn’t do?

          • Provide them w/ neat tech 🙂

            Valve doesn’t seem like the kind of guys to be in the main competition. They would be the guys that provide convenience to the competition.

            Using their tech would make an HMD a step above the rest.

            Who knows, maybe you’ll see a Steam app in windows MR with Steam VR.

            It’s really HTC vs Oculus w/ Valve proving the tech for HTC, same goes for Lenovo.

            So they can do the same for standalone.

            There is also the convenience of using one controller with everything like the knuckles controller.

            So Steam VR won’t be in the main competition, it would jus be supporting the providing the competition w/ what it needs while it sits back, relax and watch the show.

            And as for the mainstream audience, that’ll always be audience that wants big beautiful games so it’s actually a smart move by valve.

            Unless that audience is mobile, but no one cares about mobile outside the hardcore crowd, anyway.

  • kim jong un

    I hope black people don’t ruin it.

  • CRASH_Override

    The problem is the range of quality experience. The difference between a mobile or standalone unit and a tethered PC set up is huge. I was not convinced when I tried Google VR, but I have an Oculus and was straight up blown away with the full games on PC. Its not even comparable.

    Also, as much as HTC is doing right with the Vive, I wonder if they will survive. It seems like they will get swallowed by one of the tech giants.

    • polysix

      True, I’ve been against mobile/nerfed VR since my DK2 days and we know the difference is massive. But average joe/soccer mom will never buy a fast PC nor want to, but for VR to be seen as big and become mainstream I guess standalones with locked down content/DRM like consoles so they can sell them cheap enough then make money back on software is the way to go for THAT goal.

      I see that separate from the idealistic hardcore VR you and I know, that’ll not be replicated in standalone for many years, and when it can then PC VR will have moved on massively too – inc wireless and all the other benefits of standalone without the drawbacks (for fast PC owners).

    • RFC_VR

      It’s a contrast, but not what I feared.

      After owning 2 Vive’s and getting out of 1st generation, I got Pixel XL cheap on contract and just £69 for Daydream hmd.

      It wasn’t crap as feared. Good content is good content and controller surprisingly effective. Designing around limitations can lead to innovation.

      Some compelling applications to experience and Quad HD/higher PPI display is welcome especially YouTube VR. It’s incredibly easy to use, which really makes it accessible. Not being tethered is real nice.

      You can tell there is substantial money being put into application development and daydream ecosystem.

      The HMD is admittedly a “plush cardboard” and would benefit from ergonomic update to face cushion, better head strap and ipd adjustment.

      But you can see big potential of standalone bringing 6DOF into the ecosystem they are building.

  • Let’s wait and see. About Xbox, Microsoft has always said that its VR support will come next year.

    And I don’t agree about Alloy. It seemed pretty cool to me, considering that it also supported hands tracking

  • UpIrons

    I think the other problem is the world hasn’t been shown a real good reason to embrace VR yet. However the timing might be right because when the movie Ready Player One comes out, it’s likely to show us all what VR could be used for in the near future. This could end up being the catalyst needed to truly spark wider adoption, but only if Spielberg has done an amazing job of demonstrating the OASIS virtual world in the movie.