Wandering the massive halls and meeting spaces that stretch Las Vegas for CES, it couldn’t be more clear what two themes dominated the show this year. Amazon managed to make Alexa pop from every corner of the event without even being on the show floor itself, and the combination of Virtual and Augmented Reality dominated conversations everywhere. Unlike last year, where the VR focus was largely pre-consumer tech waiting to be packaged and sold with the right software, the big theme for VR CES was all about fixing or enhancing the current experiences users already have.
Here’s what I learned about what’s coming next.
Mobile VR is going to continue outpacing everything
As impressive and comparably advanced as Desktop-class VR is, and as entertaining as the more complex content coming to those platforms are, mobile VR is going to continue being the most popular this year. At the start of CES, Samsung announced 5 million Gear VR headsets existed in the world. That’s not quite the same thing as 5 million sold, or 5 million active users, but 5 million Gear VR headsets exist outside of Samsung to be used by people. Some of that includes VR rides at theme parks and demo stations, but a lot of those headsets are sitting on shelves at home to be worn by users. That 5 million number is considerably larger than HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or PlayStation VR sales.
This year there’s going to be another significant mobile VR player with Google’s Daydream. By the end of CES, Google had announced an eighth phone with Daydream support. While Google hasn’t gone to Samsung’s lengths in giving out headsets wholesale just yet, Daydream is going to quickly support many more phones than just the Galaxy and Note lines. The headset is also cheaper, and can potentially do more with the Daydream Controller. By the end of the year, it’s entirely possible Gear VR and Daydream active user numbers are quite close.
When talking with former Oculus VR of Engineering Jack McCauley, it was clear he felt the way Desktop-class VR sales figures paled in comparison to mobile VR was significant. “The PC side hasn’t sold well. It’s an enthusiast product with a high cost. Even PlayStation VR hasn’t sold well. The mobile side has done much better with the Gear VR, and I tell people that’s it. That’s where people are buying.” What does that mean for the industry? A couple of things, depending on your position within it. For software developers and content creators, it means there’s a much larger user base willing to spend money on your products. Mobile users are typically willing to spend less on apps, but volume helps balance that out. For hardware hackers, accessory creators, and those who want more from VR, this relatively small mobile VR market represents a challenge.
Next Stop — Swapping wires for more things to track
The people able to rock a Desktop-class VR system are quick to defend how much more capable they are when compared to mobile VR, and that’s undeniably true. The immersion afforded by walking around in a room and moving your arms around to zoom through Google Earth at human scale, or the ability to shoot finger guns at your opponent before the match begins with Oculus Touch, is incredible. That doesn’t mean Rift, Vive, and PSVR are without room for improvement by any means, and that’s where the big focus is going to be over the next year. We’re not going to see a focus on more pixels in the headset or more realistic graphics pushed by the PC this year. Instead, we’re going to see a significant lean towards making the headsets themselves wireless and a focus on tracking much more than just the headset and controllers.
HTC is leading the charge with their big accessory announcements during CES. As has been remarked on several occasions by those who have been able to try TPCast so far, it really works surprisingly well. Telling the difference between wired and wireless VR will be borderline impossible by the end of the year, barring any massive wireless interruption problems or people realizing 2 hours of battery isn’t quite enough for their VR parties. The partnership with TPCast and other wireless accessory manufacturers will ensure a small portion of Vive experiences will be fully wireless by the Summer of this year, but at a $250 price tag on top of the already expensive Rift setup it’s unlikely to be widespread right away.
What is far more likely to be an accessory every Vive owner considers buying as soon as it is available is the new Vive Tracker. HTC is selling a quick adapter to make just about anything real become represented in VR, and that’s going to be huge for immersion. Holding a physical weapon so you can use it in VR, or making it possible for sensory gloves to be a default game mechanic, is a very big deal. When talking with HTC’s General Manager for Vive, Daniel O’Brien, it was clear new things to track completed the Vive experience for him. “I’m really excited about the gloves. The tactile feel of your fingers and the control that brings, it’s just another level of immersion and interaction that a wand controller just can’t do.” We don’t have pricing for these Trackers yet, but HTC is very focused on making sure there’s plenty to do with these accessories.
Tracking is going to be more than another accessory full of sensors. When talking with Raj Rao, Sr. Market Strategist at uSens, he explained that full hand tracking coming from the headset itself could become an industry standard as long as the interaction was unified. “The fundamental tracking of your hands should work whether you’re on a mobile device or PC or tethered device. That’s where we work with different players in the ecosystem. If I’m working on a game for Gear VR, I’m obvisouly not making the same decisions about graphical richness. That’s where the conversation needs to be happening.” While offering demonstrations for their Fingo VR tracker, which is geared at offering hand tracking for everything from Google Cardboard to HTC Vive, it was clear the boundary for hand tracking in any VR environment had everything to do with making sure the experience was the same everywhere. If companies like uSens or Leap Motion can’t make this happen reliably with IR sensors picking up your digits, lightweight VR gloves full of sensors will absolutely be the answer. One of the two will become much more common this year, and for the moment the gloves seem like the way larger companies are leaning.
Without the use of separate tethered hardware, simple accessory tracking is making a splash as well. There isn’t usually a lot of attention paid to Merge VR, the obnoxiously purple Google Cardboard clone commonly seen on the shelves at Best Buy, but the company is clearly focused on standing out in the crowd. Their CES announcement included multiple colors for their headsets and a black cube with QR-like markings all over it. Merge is calling this Holocube, and it uses the camera on the phone to see the cube and overlay virtual imagery. The initial demonstrations include turning the cube into a skull, a fully 3D Minecraft clone you can hold in your hand, and an art application that let you draw in space Tilt Brush style by waving the cube around. It’s a small accessory for an $80 VR headset that is going to make a huge difference when it comes to showing off what VR tracking options are really out there when developers are given space to play.
There’s plenty of opportunity to think about tracking inside the headset as well. FOVE inc. was at CES this year showing off what happens when you track the eyes inside the headset. Fairly simple sensors inside the headset would make it possible to see where you were looking, and with that information the VR platform could use foveated rendering to only draw the sharpest images where you’re looking instead of across the whole display. That technique, if accurate enough, could dramatically reduce the GPU requirement in VR and make it much easier for less expensive computers to deliver quality VR experiences. This isn’t something we’ll see in use this year, but the FOVE proof of concept is an incredible look at where the next generation of VR headsets should be focused.
360-degree recording is very popular, but not among consumers
Capturing video for VR is an incredibly compelling idea. You can capture the whole world around you instead of just a specific manicured frame, and that’s a lot of fun. But it’s also expensive for consumers, and for the most part the 360-degree cameras under $800 don’t look great when you’re looking at the image in VR. Those cameras are finding new life in the ability to stream live though Periscope, and it’s likely Facebook will eventually follow suit, but those experiences are decidedly 2D and meant to be enjoyed from your phone in your hand.
That doesn’t mean 360-photography and video are going away. In fact, the opposite is true. You can expect every major motion picture headed to theaters this year to offer some kind of 360-degree video or full 3D VR experience to accompany the release to theaters, and that’s just the start. VR video now has multiple categories for film awards, and creating for VR is slowly becoming better understood by creatives around the world. According to Adam Powell, CTO of LucidVR, Their VR cameras are being used in many situations as a way to preview a scene before rolling in more expensive camera rigs to record the shot. “Our initial focus is the pre-production market. A lot of companies looking into VR production find a lot of VR production cameras are very expensive. Before they go rent on of those big cameras, a couple of comparably cheap LucidCams let them pre-shoot all of their scenes. We think that’s great for us, because it means prosumers are using our product to create great content.”
Professional video equipment for VR means having tools built for the experience, and so far no company seems quite as ready to meet the needs of their audience as Nokia with the OZO camera. Aside from being an incredibly impressive piece of hardware for recording both live and staged content for VR, OZO is fully ready for just about everything professionals need to do right now. Nokia’s software makes adding visual effects on the fly a possibility if the need arises, and its ability to control the location and effect of stitch lines between the individual cameras in incredibly impressive. It was clear from the demonstration I observed the whole team was working hard to adapt to the new environment creators found themselves in with VR video.
This doesn’t mean consumer VR cameras are going away, but it’s clear there’s going to be a real need for manufacturers building cameras capable of offering full 3D VR images and video to stand up an differentiate themselves from standard 360-degree cameras that look ok on Facebook over the next year. That’s going to cause a split for those that really just want to post to Facebook and those that want to be seen as amateur VR cinematographers, which will be a much bigger deal as VR cinema companies start looking for ways to bring in new talent to keep their content shelves full and unique.
Bottom line: It’s going to be a big year for improvement
Many of the original challenges with this new generation of VR experiences still exist. It’s still not easy to show someone how great VR is without putting them in a headset. The best experiences are still far too expensive and complicated for most potential users to consider buying right now. Making money creating for VR is still not easy to do. These aren’t challenges you’d expect to see resolved at an event like CES, but in all of my conversations with leaders in this industry these topics also aren’t discussed nearly as frequently as they probably should.
Any way you look at it, VR is going to continue to be a big deal this year. The entire ecosystem is growing and focusing, despite there being no clear “winner” as so many thought would happen last year. The big companies are enabling more partners to offer unique experiences through their headsets. Developers are taking those tools and creating things no one has ever been able to accomplish before. Instead of a flash in the pan where people with too much money are flexing their privilege for something no one else can have, we’re seeing an arms race towards democratization and a slow burn from early adopters ready to enjoy these new concepts.
But the most exciting thing about the general industry direction I gained from CES 2017 is the desire to make every part of VR more human. Hardware manufacturers appreciate the emotional reactions forged in VR, and understand the key to enhancing that experience is to make every aspect of the experience feel more real and natural. Removing these reminders that you’re in VR, like the constant reminder you’re holding a controller or the way you look down in a video and don’t see a body, are not only being addressed but being treated as vital parts of making VR successful over time. Every step closer to making the user feel like they have actually traveled to another world is a greater success for all forms of VR, and more than anything else that message is the industry focus right now.