The Future Of Virtual Reality Is Wireless

by Ian Hamilton • October 23rd, 2018

In recent months we’ve been talking about some new definitions and marketing terms that are coming into more popular use — “wireless” and “standalone” VR. While we’ve seen hints of it in 2018, next year is when the technology will really take off.

Before I get into why that’s going to be the case, here’s an overview of where everything is for VR near the end of 2018:

  • We’ve tested the “Vive Wireless Adapter” and Vive Pro powered by Intel’s WiGig technology, as well as the forthcoming Oculus Quest headset and its truly wireless “Insight” tracking system. They both seem to work well.
  • Google’s head of VR and AR Clay Bavor made clear to us in a 2017 interview that Google could pursue its own devices in VR and AR. Google’s hiring of teams working on software like Tilt Brush, Soundstage and Job Simulator join home-grown projects like Blocks that generally indicate awareness of a consumer desire for intuitive hand-based input in VR. Most recently, Google signaled its intent to power a wireless standalone VR system with the kind of hand input we’ve come to expect from Vive, Rift, PSVR and even Windows-based headsets.
  • We know PlayStation VR sold 3 million headsets over two years and that Gear VR eclipsed that figure, but fewer people use those phone-powered headsets which are often bundled with a phone.
  • Former VR development companies like CCP Games have executives who now say they’d hoped the PC market they were selling into would be 2-3 times as large as it is. Some independent developers, however, can clear milestones like selling 100,000 copies of their game in a single month of 2018 available only on PC VR systems.
  • Valve continues to push input forward with the Knuckles controllers — while also building its own VR games — but partner HTC is charging a premium to get wireless VR or large-scale tracking with a PC in 2018.
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t say much about Rift at the Oculus Connect 5 developer conference, except to say that a “new version” of the Rift would likely be “for experiences that need a PC to push the edge of what’s possible.”
  • We’re excited to see how the new Samsung Odyssey+ performs with SteamVR games, but it fundamentally still operates with a tethered connection to a PC.

The state of VR after the first two years of broad consumer availability is a complicated story not many understand, but the underlying pressure at play right now is that some money-strapped developers working at technology’s cutting edge in the last few months of 2018 need to decide whether to suffer the arduous process of porting their work to standalone VR headsets like Quest or the Mirage Solo, or to push development forward with their PC-based VR games. The first option means betting Facebook or Google will get a sufficient install base willing to pay $20+ for content, while the second option means developing games in hope that future PC-powered hardware will open the market up to more people.

With news yesterday that Brendan Iribe was departing Facebook amid a report of a cancelled “Rift 2”, the future of PC VR itself was called into question. After all, Valve head Gabe Newell is on record as saying, “We’re optimistic. We think VR is going great. It’s going in a way that’s consistent with our expectations…We’re also pretty comfortable with the idea that it will turn out to be a complete failure.”

Is The Next Oculus Rift Wireless?

After OC5, Games Editor David Jagneaux and I were livestreaming our takeaways from the conference and I found myself questioning whether Oculus would ever ship a Rift 2, or whether the popularity of Quest would cause them to reconsider their entire plan.

Here you can see the discussion at 43 minutes into the stream:

No headsets yet support the VirtualLink connector for next generation VR headsets. Meanwhile, the WiGig standard seems to do a pretty good job of delivering wireless VR from a PC to a headset nearby. This means there could be a lot of options for pushing PC-based VR into its next steps in 2019 and 2020. A future Oculus Rift could adopt Quest’s “Insight” tracking system with new lenses, but would such a system be any better than a Samsung Odyssey+?

There’s also the avenue of developing wireless streaming systems for PCs, or developing new kinds of PCs themselves that are light enough to be worn on the side or clipped to a pocket and wired to the lightweight headset. Will Facebook, Microsoft, Sony or Valve support the development of these new kinds of PCs (or  game consoles)? Or will these companies push wireless technologies in place of VirtualLink? The future of PC-powered VR may depend on the answer to those questions, because the high price (and installation involved) in getting an HTC Vive setup and wireless in 2018 is keeping VR away from many would-be buyers.

The Master Plan

Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to make next generation personal computers and he spent many billions of dollars betting that VR headsets would be his entry point into that market. Facebook didn’t make its first true entry into that market in 2016 with Oculus Rift and its gamepad. Nor did it really redefine computing with 2018’s Oculus Go standalone, because that system doesn’t let buyers do as many of the things they’ve indicated they’ll pay to do in VR headsets — make a world, fire an arrow, shoot a gun, punch a face or swipe a sword.

No, the Oculus Quest shipping in 2019 represents the realization of Mark Zuckerberg’s dream to revolutionize personal computing and communication. It is notable that co-founders Palmer Luckey and Brendan Iribe aren’t along for that stage of the journey, but I doubt anyone would say they weren’t paid handsomely for their contributions. Personnel-wise, Oculus CTO John Carmack indicated he wants to stick around, Michael Abrash continues to lead research efforts looking into the long-term technologies that could push VR forward over the long term and co-founder Nate Mitchell continues to work on Rift efforts.

“We buy companies to get excellent people,” Zuckerberg said in 2010. “We want to build a very entrepreneurial company…and one way to do this is to focus on great companies with great founders.”

I wonder if that was still true in 2014 when Zuckerberg acquired Oculus, or whether it was still true in 2017 and 2018 when Luckey and Iribe departed.

Maybe Facebook did kill a version of the Rift that Brendan Iribe worked on, as TechCrunch reported. If that prototype’s end makes way for more accessible PC-powered Rift as a result, though, that’s going to help developers who’ve invested in developing PC-based VR games. There are a lot of ways Rift can improve without adding 4K or eye tracking, but Facebook still hasn’t made clear whether it will make those improvements in 2019 — a full three years after the Rift’s initial release. Will the company simply push out potential upgrades to Rift until 2020 or 2021 and wait to see what happens with Oculus Quest before making final calls about the next generation of PC VR hardware?

We’ll of course have to wait and see.

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