Report: CES 2019 Immersive Tech

Analyst firm CCS Insight releases its latest report on the VR and AR launches that had the crowds in Las Vegas buzzing earlier this month.

It doesn’t take much more than a casual glance to see that immersive tech was a huge focus of this year’s CES — 2019 was the biggest event for VR and AR to date — but with all the noise and so much ground to cover, it’s handy to have an overview of all the major announcements and what they mean for the industry.

That’s what CCS Insight has put together with its Hotline Report which examines the event’s major themes and implications in VR/AR.

There has been, they note, some cooling off and negative sentiment towards the VR industry, specially in areas such as smartphone headsets and 360 video:

“This category showed a lot of potential in 2016, when Facebook and YouTube began supporting spherical content. But although mass adoption seemed imminent at that time, significant consumer adoption has failed to materialize. The recent revelation that the leading player in this space, Jaunt, has given up on its 360-degree content business is persuasive evidence that appetite is weakening. We believe the saving grace for this struggling content medium would be if the world’s biggest social and messaging apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Qzone, WeChat and WhatsApp launched support.”

While Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR headsets had their role in propelling consumer awareness of VR, the report concludes that smartphone VR headsets are pretty much done for and there is palpable lack of enthusiasm for developing them further, as consumers are demanding a level of quality that only standalone and tethered VR devices can reliably deliver, and simultaneously these devices are also decreasing in price so as to make them much more accessible. Consequently, we’ve seen very little in the way of updates and new releases the smartphone VR space at CES.

Another insight that emerges is that with the huge number of new immersive headsets, accessories and experiences on offer, fragmentation is becoming a growing problem which the industry has so far failed to address.

“Developers are facing difficult decisions about where to focus their efforts, which only hinders the all-important flow of content. The Khronos Group is attempting to tackle this challenge with its OpenXR consortium, but it has yet to provide a significant update since it formally launched the initiative in August 2018.”

Overall, however, the report paints an optimistic picture of a more mature industry that has moved beyond the initially unrealistic hype we’ve seen peak a couple of years ago into a more mature attitude that recognizes the challenges and is committed to long-term development of immersive technologies. Here are the main highlights:

Sony reiterated its commitment to VR, drawing attention to its PlayStation VR headsets at its press event and on the show floor. It revealed few relevant statistics, but indicated that it shipped 5.6 million PlayStation 4 consoles in the fourth quarter of 2018, bringing the total number to an impressive 91.6 million units worldwide.

Dell demonstrated its Mobile Connect VR app, which allows users to access a virtual version of their smartphone in a virtual environment. Use cases include allowing users to avoid missing calls and notifications while immersed in VR.

HTC launched the latest version of its tethered Vive headset, the Vive Pro Eye, which features built-in eye-tracking technology provided by Tobii. Eye-tracking is something that many hardware manufacturers are focused on improving, as it has huge potential for enhancing VR experiences. Essentially, eye-tracking technology can improve the efficiency of headsets thanks to a software technique known as foveated rendering. This lowers the resolution of parts of the screen that a user is not directly looking at. HTC also showcased the eye-tracking capability of its Vive Pro Eye headset using the Ovation VR public-speaking simulator, aimed at professional training. Its software can now analyse the amount of time a user spends looking at notes or making eye contact with the audience to suggest improvements.

The company also announced the Viveport Infinity subscription service, which was described as “Netflix for VR” which gives subscribers unlimited access to over 500 VR apps. It also announced compatibility with Firefox’s VR browser, in addition to a WebVR partnership with Amazon Sumerian, a platform for building VR, AR and 3D apps.

The Vive device family now has five different HMD models: Vive, Vive Cosmos, Vive Focus, Vive Pro and Vive Pro Eye. HTC has previously indicated that its only standalone headset, the Vive Focus, will be sold as an enterprise-only device outside China, a decision that leaves Oculus unopposed in the growing standalone VR segment. Oculus will have two standalone devices, Go and Quest, available worldwide in 2019.

Oculus didn’t exhibit at CES, but announced yet another price dropt for the Rift headset (down to $349) which makes the device a significant $150 cheaper than the HTC Vive and makes it more viable competition for some of the Windows Mixed Reality VR headsets which retail for as little as $199. This offloading of the tethered Rift models makes sense considering the anticipated release of the standalone Oculus Quest headset later this year.\

Some observers are hoping HTC will release a new device in 2019 to rival the $199 Oculus Go. However, we believe HTC does not wish to enter a race to the bottom against Oculus, which has Facebook’s financial backing. HTC is likely to focus its efforts on maintaining Vive as a premium VR brand. We expect the new headset to come with premium price tags, in line with the tethered HTC Vive Pro, which costs $800, and the $600 standalone Vive Focus.

Chinese VR headset maker Pico unveiled its enterprise-focussed Pico G2 4K. The headset comes with a hand remote and features the same hardware as Pico’s other G2 devices, but instead of a resolution of 1,440 by 1,600 pixels, it offers a 4K display. The Pico G2 4K will be available for organizations in the first half of 2019.

There seems to be increased emphasis from major industry players in finding ways to integrate physical movements into VR content. HTC collaborated with manufacturer of fitness equipment NordicTrack to create a VR biking game that used a proprietary bike handle as a game controller. It will be sold as a bundle with the VIVE focus for $2,000 in the summer. 3dRudder, a foot controller that allows users to move in the virtual world, received support from Sony’s PlayStation VR. It allows players to tilt, spin, or apply pressure with their feet to move around in PlayStation VR games. Another company working to let users “walk” in VR is Cybershoes. However, its device, which attaches to users’ feet, requires wearers to be sitting down and mimic a walking movement, which is then transferred into the VR game which feels far from natural.

After a bumpy 2018 that saw many delays to its new headsets, Pimax exhibited the production versions of its 8K and 5K Plus devices, priced at $899 and $699 respectively. It also presented its upcoming VR controllers, which resemble Valve’s Knuckles, in addition to hand- and eye-tracking modules.

Teslasuit showed off its VR haptic suit. Previous attempts by other companies to develop a working haptic suit through crowd-funding have failed. Teslasuit is yet to go into mass production, but it has already made several working units and remains very optimistic.

There has been significant movement in the AR Smartglasses space, but they remain much more suited for enterprise experiences in their present form.

Vuzix, the leading manufacturer of enterprise smart glasses announced that its Blade glasses have started shipping, priced at $999 First revealed at CES 2018, Blade features Amazon Alexa built-in and is being promoted as a consumer device. Although Vuzix continues focussed on enterprises as its main market, the company believes the design of its device and growing app ecosystem will attract consumers as well.

A product that garnered a lot of attention throughout the show was Focals glasses by a company called North. In December 2018, it emerged that North acquired the patents and technology behind Intel’s now-cancelled Vaunt AR glasses. The company has moved quickly to make the glasses commercially available, and has already started shipping them, priced at $999. Like Vaunt, Focals uses a small laser embedded in the stem of the glasses to project a reflected image directly into a wearer’s retina. The glasses allow users to send and receive messages, see turn-by-turn directions and talk to Amazon’s Alexa assistant. North’s main goal has been to create smart glasses people actually would want to wear, and in our view, North has succeeded at this. However, its design comes with significant drawbacks: the display is quite small compared with other AR glasses and requires users to operate it with a separate control ring with a small joystick.

Another attention-grabbing product showcased were the nreal smart glasses, which were developed by a former Magic Leap employee and offer head-tracking and 52-degree field of view with a high-clarity display that was both large and sharp. nReal is not commercially available yet but aims to develop in that direction this year.

DreamGlass AR smart glasses boast an impressive 90-degree field of view and six-degrees- of-freedom tracking and are priced at a relatively reasonable $619, they run the Android operating system and have hand-tracking and gesture controls.

I personally find Realmax a rather exciting proposition, in that its headset is compatible with prescription glasses and operates across the AR/VR spectrum. This is standalone device that uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset and features Android-based open architecture, which means huge potential for app development. While the current developer version is priced on par with HMD’s like Magic Leap at $2,900, a new model planned for release in 2019 model will be priced at a very attractive $1,500.

ThirdEye Gen claimed its X2 device forms the world’s smallest mixed reality glasses. The device offers 42-degree field of view and a display resolution of 720 pixels. Its Android- based system integrates software for remote assistance as well as other custom features. The company boasts its app store has over 100 apps.

Kopin’s Golden-i Infinity is a head-worn monocular display that can be controlled by voice and gestures. It is designed to serve the needs of field workers in a variety of different industries. It supports Android and Windows 10-based computing solutions.

DigiLens, backed by Mitsubishi, Niantic and Sony, unveiled its ArHUD headset offering a 30-degree field of view and capable of running both AR and VR applications. It will be one of the least-expensive AR headsets, priced at $499. The company claims it can be used for activities ranging from architectural visualization, gaming, telepresence and night vision. The ArHUD is being field-trialled, but has no release date as yet.

Rokid’s new $1,000 Aurora AR headset for enterprises features the company’s own chipset for voice recognition. The Aurora is also able to calculate depth and distance. It can connect to external devices through a USB-C cable.

For companies looking to get into Immersive technologies our VR Consultancy service offers comprehensive support in strategic deployment of Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality

Alice Bonasio is a VR Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow @alicebonasio on Twitter.