Standing alone in VR

Nick Bicanic
Jun 23, 2018 · 12 min read

Standalones - A modern shorthand for the next generation of Frameless Media devices (VR or AR) that don’t require any kind of wires or external computer/phone to be connected.

(TLDR: HTC Vive Focus is the Cadillac of Standalones.)

As of right now (late June 2018) the standalone market includes: Oculus Go, HTC Vive Focus, Lenovo Mirage Solo Daydream and the Pico Neo.

I happen to have one of each so I thought I’d write down some thoughts.

HTC Vive Focus
Lenovo Mirage Solo Daydream
Pico Neo
Oculus Go

Now — purists may quibble with the inclusion of the Oculus Go on this list — since in reality it’s a 3DOF only device — whereas the others are all 6DOF devices (albeit with 3DOF hand controllers) — but since it is a standalone — and sits at the most affordable end of the market I have decided it deserves a place on the list.

It’s worth noting that only two of these devices are currently available outside of China — the Oculus Go (from $199) and the Lenovo Mirage Solo VR ($399). The official price points for the other devices have not been set (although I have seen the Pico Neo listed for $749, and heard talk of a price of $550 for the Vive Focus)

The versions we are working with at http://framelessagency.com/ are Developer Kits which are likely identical to the eventual shipping units in terms of hardware but we expect the software to be upgraded.

The Oculus Go uses the Snapdragon 821 (the same chipset that was in the original Google Pixel) and the other three all use the Snapdragon 835.

This is not meant as a comprehensive review — but more as a few loose observations of an interesting moment in time.

(As an aside note the total and utter dominance of Qualcomm and Android in this sector — literally every single device is running a Qualcomm chipset with a version of Android)

BASIC FIT and FINISH

As I said in the TLDR — the Vive Focus easily wins this category — not just because of the premium leather feel.

Vive Focus Premium Leather
Vive Focus

But also because of the ergonomics of wearing it, putting it on and taking it off, the IPD adjustment, the high quality screens (one per eye) etc etc.

While the aesthetics of the design are not going to please everybody — it’s a bold choice by HTC and they certainly leaned into it. Every aspect is solid and has a premium feel. A+

The Lenovo device gets a passing grade here for sure — a solid B-. It’s not so much that it’s bad (certainly not in comparison with the Pico Neo — more on that in the next few paragraphs) but it just feels a little flimsy in approach. There is no IPD adjustment (although interestingly you can move the screen closer/further away from your face I guess to help with focus/fit). The seal is made of foam, much like the Gear VR.

I do find it a very odd choice to remove external audio from the device. You have to have a headset plugged in — in order to hear any audio at all from the system since there are no external speakers.

A moment to consider the Pico Neo. It, well, has speakers ;) That’s a good thing. It also has an adjustable headstrap. But every aspect of it unfortunately screams cheap.

This is very weird in 2018 — because while Consumer Electronics brands from China have in years long past been synonymous with plastic low cost stuff that breaks when you try to use it — with low grade components inside and every corner cut — over the last few years this situation has shifted for the better. As Chinese consumers became more discerning and the firms got bolder and more mature about their Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering — DJI and others have produced extremely solid products that look good and work very well.

Although the Pico VR is a disappointment from a fit/finish perspective — interestingly the screen is very bright (arguably the brightest of the bunch) and as I said everything “works” very well from a software/hardware perspective…it just feels like I’m in a plastic entry level Ford as opposed to high end BMW like the Vive Focus.

Spare a thought for the Oculus Go — which has built in speakers and is extremely small (read: much easier to pack).

Go on top of Vive (Go is about 35% of the depth of Vive)

What it lacks in tracking capability it definitely makes up for in being compact and well thought out — the semi-soft strap with the built in audio is an elegant solution. Personally I found the aesthetics of the Go a little bit bland — but they were styling it to go with the Oculus Rift CV1 so…yeah.

CONTROLLER

L to R: Daydream, Vive, Oculus, Pico

The controllers were full of interesting choices. It’s worth noting that when I first tried the Pico Neo (at CES) it had a 6DOF controller but it turns out that the ultrasonic system they were using is very buggy — so they reverted to a regular 3DOF controller.

Pretty much all the controllers work the same way (back button, home button, 4 way selection pad with swiping capability) except that the official Lenovo remote (exactly the same as the original Daydream remote) lacks a trigger button.

Symmetrical Lenovo remote

It’s not just about having a trigger per se (although it’s a very natural way of “selecting” in many types of spatial UX) but additionally the Daydream remotes are symmetrical and I’ve already lost count of the amount of times I’ve said “Errr dude the remote is upside down” to friends as they are holding it.

I much preferred the trigger button remotes — the Oculus Go remote is my choice for most comfortable — with the Pico Neo remote as the least comfortable (the back button is too far away).

Oculus Go: Most comfortable controller

The Pico allows dual remote configuration (but I didn’t have a second remote to try this out with)

Pico remote

It’s worth noting that HTC has teased a 6DOF controller feature which uses the optical sensors for additional position data without a hardware upgrade — how well this will work, or whether it will ship in time for the US launch — remains to be seen.

Vive Remote

It seems strange to me that none of the headset manufacturers have opted to implement highly accurate and very cost effective EM tracking for multiple controllers like this — but are instead relying on bluetooth based gyroscopic systems. I can only assume that’s coming in the next generation — although one could easily add it as a module.

TRACKING

No surprises here — all the tracking is pretty much identical. This makes sense given that (at least as far as I’m aware they are all using pretty much the same hardware based inside-out tracking. A couple of things of note here:

  • Yeah I know it’s a bit obvious at this point in the article but three of the devices are 6DOF (what Google calls Worldsense) and the Oculus Go is 3DOF

SOFTWARE

The devil’s in the details here. Let’s look at them one-by-one

  • Facebook (freshly divorced from the slightly awkward Samsung marriage I’m told they inherited with the purchase of Oculus) is now doubling down on the software library devs made for the GearVR. All GearVR apps should work (or be easily port-able) — because, in essence an Oculus Go is a slightly more elegant GearVR.

OTHER NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS

I think it’s a highly unfortunate oversight that the Oculus Go only has a USB 2.0 port. USB 3.0 is not just useful because it’s much faster sideloading — but also significantly faster charging. The difference in cost is almost negligible.

The Vive Focus and the Pico Neo both have a full speed USB 3.0 port.

The jury is still out on the Lenovo — it’s definitely a USB-C port and the chip reports as USB 3.0 but I have no definite confirmation it’s fully enabled.

Pico Neo supports USB-OTG fully, Vive Focus is going to support it but doesn’t yet. Lenovo appears to have partial support.

I also think that there should be a software way of disabling the auto-screen turn off when you remove the headset from your head. This is part screen saver part battery saver — but it can be really annoying when you are dealing with first time users as you cannot see what state the screen is in just by looking at it (you have to put the headset on almost fully).

It’s touches like the auto-screen shut-off, the symmetrical remote and the discomfort putting on/taking off headsets while wearing glasses that make me wonder how much new user testing/onboarding goes on in the design and development of these headset systems. It feels like real UX testing might happen a bit too late in the game and the hardware ergonomics are already locked in.

CONCLUSION

Lots to parse here. All these companies are trying to move the ball forwards and trying to create a market where there is none. This, needless to say, is very hard and I don’t think there’s any way all of these platforms survive — it’s as if Windows, Apple, BBC Micro, NeXT all launched at the same time with incompatible marketplaces ;)

If I had to pick I would say that Pico will struggle outside of the Chinese market unless they can drop the price point down below the Lenovo Mirage Daydream — which means their US price would have to be at $325–350. I have no idea how well capitalized Pico is or whether they can afford to do this — perhaps they will chase enterprise customers instead?

As for the other three…well — this will be a drawn out battle.

The only educated guess likely to hold true in the VR (and by association AR) is this — mobile wins over desktop by default.

Oculus is first out at the gates at a very low price — and with the marketing $$$ might of Facebook behind it. Unless some miracle happens the Oculus Santa Cruz will likely just skip the Snapdragon 835 and release a standalone 6DOF device based on the 845. Maybe FB is right and the $200 price point is just low enough to convince people to take a risk at Christmas — but frankly given the cash reserves of the company — I think a much lower price would have made more sense (possibly even zero). Fund the developer ecosystem and build the hardware and make the userbase. Sure it’s gonna cost hundreds of millions — but then you own the entire sector. Taking baby steps might never get you there.

But Google is no longer just playing in this space with Cardboard and (original) Daydream as cheap add-ons for a phone — they’re going straight after full VR — they’re just skipping the desktops entirely.

The most interesting information (as evidenced by the fact that the Pico Neo runs HTC Viveport) is that, in reality all of these devices could run any of the software portals (likely without much work at all). HTC is unlikely to join forces with FB/Oculus — but they could easily certify the Vive Focus as a Daydream device and fuse Viveport and the Play Store together.

HTC (I assume) has the least cash to spend, but the best product in my opinion — so my bet is HTC picks a side — and it becomes Google vs. FB.

In a Google vs FB game being played out on mobile devices — I say Google wins because Android. FB doesn’t have an O/S and in an AR/VR environment the social components of its core service don’t function as well — FB is highly unlikely to buy an O/S by buying Magic Leap (not least of all because of Google’s early stage investment which would presumably give blocking rights for such a sale)

What I want to know is — where is Sony? Why didn’t Sony make a standalone device to extend its PSVR ecosystem? Sony is convinced that it can hang onto living room VR with superior visuals and the installed base of Playstation systems — but that argument is grows weak given the much longer hardware upgrade cycle.

Will Apple skip VR entirely and just do AR? And how does AR feature on Google/HTC/FB roadmap (outside of ARkit)? Curious minds want to know ;)

AR tech is still a LONG way away from being usable due to tracking and occlusion issues — Magic Leap’s ridiculous runway notwithstanding. And frankly, ARkit/ARcore are solutions in search of a problem. In a quest to free ourselves from the shackles of the keyboard/mouse and enter a more naturalistic computational environment (WiFi, Bluetooth, Airpod, Voice, Siri, Alexa, NLP etc etc) the idea of building a new computing metaphor around holding your phone out in front of you to “see” an AR object seems absurd to me.

I get that it’s a marathon not a sprint — and we need building blocks. AR is clearly the final answer we are heading towards (especially as VR is a subset of AR from a technical perspective) — but standalone VR headsets are a step in the right direction.

Those who have bothered to read this far will notice I didn’t talk about content at all. Videos, Educational Experiences, Games, Social Apps etc etc — clearly they are vital because without content no one will be using this hardware beyond early adopters — however the purpose of this article was to address the emergence of the new hardware platforms. I am very excited about the overall frameless media space — and I will continue to work in and pontificate about it ;)