I recently outlined the VR headsets which pushed the technology forward over the last six years by giving lots of developers new capabilities. In this post, I want to provide a blueprint for people to think about the spatial computing revolution over the next six years.
Only a handful of companies worldwide have the teams and infrastructure in place to build a complete platform with the hardware, software and services that together would offer a truly compelling VR system. I believe the next six years will see an acceleration in efforts to build these more compelling VR headsets.
Follow Money-Making Content
The distinction matters between limited pointer-only hand controls and VR systems that let you reach too, because it appears many of the most profitable VR games rely on these kinds of interactions.
In 2018, there is already a market of hundreds of thousands of VR headset owners willing to spend at least $20 apiece for hours of entertainment with a quality VR title and full “6dof” hand controls. We don’t know whether the consumer market is as supportive of developers building apps for touchpads, gamepads or pointer-only hand controls, but we’ve heard fewer success stories there.
Standalone VR headsets represent the next step forward in making VR easier to use. Point-and-reach controllers, however, are absent in the first standalone headsets expected to ship to most countries in 2018, including the Mirage Solo, Vive Focus and Oculus Go. Will developers make money building for pointer-only systems?
Tough Design Trade-Offs
Like any product, VR headset design is about making trade-offs.
The harsh truth is these trade-offs haven’t found a sweet spot yet for a mass consumer product. The perfect combination of ease of use, robust interactivity, and price, remains elusive. There is no package yet capable of appealing to people in the tens or hundreds of millions. From 2018 to 2024, I expect the world’s largest tech companies to race to make VR packages compelling enough to sell in these larger numbers. They’ll do this by decreasing price, upping interactivity, increasing immersion, and making VR easier to pick up and safer to use.
In 2018, headsets from companies like Lenovo still include drawbacks keeping the hardware from achieving mass consumer status. One kind of limitation is the presence of a wire keeping people worried about tripping and hurting themselves, or accidentally ripping out the cord and breaking a computer. That’s what you’ll think about when wearing the Lenovo Explorer, which was produced in partnership with Microsoft. Another limitation is the type of hand interaction. That’s the problem we’re likely to see with the Google-partnered Lenovo Mirage Solo, with its pointer-only hand controller.
The type of interaction possible with your hands is just one aspect of how VR hardware designers will continue to grapple with limitations. For the foreseeable future, providing a detailed virtual world to your senses will continue to fight with the need to make the hardware so lightweight that you forget you’re wearing something over your eyes.
Competing Wireless Solutions
A VR headset identifying its own location in 3D space requires a lot of power.
In fact, all Microsoft-based VR headsets doing this are still wired to a PC and draw significant power through that cord.
Some standalone headsets can do it too, like the Lenovo Mirage Solo mentioned above, but we’ve only seen this technology paired with good hand controls in a prototype Oculus headset — the Pico Neo does all of this as well, but the verdict is still out on its quality and content support.
There’s another approach to wireless VR headsets, though, involving a wireless transmitter beaming large quantities of information to a system close by. A wave of accessories powered by the WiGig standard are planned to make this more common in 2018.
These competing ideas outline some of the evolution we’ll see going forward in VR headset design. We might even see hybrids trying to offer the best of multiple options — like a headset that is wired or wireless depending how you want to use it.
Other ideas will drive hardware design too, like tracking eye, face and finger movements with incredible precision. In the case of tracking eye movement, this addition would not only enhance social connection in VR but could potentially lower the overall cost of hardware.
Wide Industry Standard Adoption
The industry standard OpenXR is moving closer to release, and the glTF format is finding wider adoption.
Though the OpenXR standard is intended to encompass both VR and AR, the first version is expected to focus on VR only, and it could represent a breakthrough moment for the emerging spatial computing industry.
Here’s how the Khronos Group describes OpenXR’s immediate benefit:
The cross-platform VR standard eliminates industry fragmentation by enabling applications to be written once to run on any VR system, and to access VR devices integrated into those VR systems to be used by applications.
Valve built a similar solution in Steam so developers could support multiple headsets, like Rift, Vive, and Samsung Odyssey. Because of Valve’s OpenVR, a single piece of software purchased from Steam can work on all these different headsets. When OpenXR is ready, it should make it easier for a single developer to make a small virtual world available across any compatible VR system.
It is unclear how OpenXR adoption will go, but it is a broadly supported standard and its roll-out might have a transformative effect.
Combine the roll-out of OpenXR with the broader adoption of formats like glTF and you start to see the underpinnings of an actual interconnected universe like the OASIS or Metaverse.
We already have virtual worlds that can be made intuitively by hand in VR, but assuming these industry standards see widespread adoption, creators should be able to make a world then immediately open it to visitors from anywhere.
You could also likely take virtual objects with you from one world to another — something they do effortlessly in Ready Player One but you can’t realistically do right now in VR.
Taking PCs From 2D To 3D
The trick @magicleap appears to be trying to solve is creating a “nuanced” connection between the digital and real world. Additional data from a variety of sources informing an advanced AI system should help make that possible. pic.twitter.com/9BHJkul2Mk
— Ian Hamilton (@hmltn) March 20, 2018
Innovative companies like Valve, Magic Leap, Leap Motion, Unity and Epic Games could still play influential roles in the spatial computing revolution going forward, but it is platform companies experienced in putting together communications-focused hardware, software and services that stand to lose or gain the most over the next decade. This makes Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon the companies most likely to hire, acquire or build their way to a platform in VR.
There will be much experimentation too, of course, with new hardware ideas launched through crowdfunding, or produced in limited quantities as prototypes or perhaps for some arcades — examples like this include StarVR and Pimax.
There will also be huge acquisitions and unexpected partnerships. The last six years were shaped by unexpected team-ups like Oculus/Facebook and HTC/Valve. I’m guessing the deals tech giants will strike over the next six years will make those seem small in comparison.
Finding New Partners
Microsoft and Google secured numerous manufacturing partners over the years in building out influence over the PC and phone industries. Samsung, meanwhile, quietly dominates early VR by supplying the high-quality OLED panels found in most of the high-end headsets on the market.
Meanwhile, Apple, Google and others invest in next-generation display technologies in hopes of finding something more compelling than the current paradigm.
It is worth noting also that Qualcomm, Intel, NVIDIA and AMD also provide some of the most important processors we’re likely to find in these systems. The price suppliers are able to charge for their components will affect the prices we’ll see for end users, and with it the size of the market for VR.
The stakes are high.
The tech giants battled over ever-growing slabs of glass when Oculus was started in 2012.
Mark Zuckerberg believed VR could be the next platform for phones and he raised the stakes when Oculus agreed to sell to Facebook in 2014.
For experiences that required a lot of set-up to enjoy, the first quality consumer VR products latched onto PCs, consoles and phones in 2015 and 2016.
Prices dropped and VR systems with easier setup were introduced in 2017.
In 2018, a few million VR headsets being used everyday isn’t exactly a paradigm shift. Having hundreds of millions used everyday by the mid-2020s, though, could be. I think that’s the target of next generation headsets designed with best-of-class portability, interactivity, and communications capabilities.
There is going to be enormous pressure on leaders at these companies to guide the evolution of existing platforms while engineering new hardware products, planning acquisitions, and securing partnerships in hopes of cutting off the biggest slice of a brand new medium.
In a future post I’ll dive into the existing products and business models in place at Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, and take a look at how it all might evolve to take advantage of spatial computing.