mi vr

Standalone VR Headsets

Virtual Reality has an access problem. Despite premium VR being cheaper than ever before, it’s still very expensive. You need a fast and pricey computer, for one thing, and VR headsets still aren’t exactly cheap.

It’s for this reason that mobile VR has become so popular. Since most people already have smartphones, it’s affordable to buy a VR HMD shell and just pop that phone into it. The downside is that phones are not optimized to be the guts of a VR headset. Their screens are often of the wrong type and the hardware can’t be pushed to its limits without overheating and shutting down. After all, the entire device has been designed to be a phone; squeezing all those components into a small rectangular box as thick as a few stacked pennies.

Clearly there is a substantial gap in the market for a standalone VR headset, meaning a headset that does not tether to an external computer. It doesn’t need to have a smartphone connected to it either. Instead, it has all the hardware it needs built into it. These headsets are designed to perform only a single task – run VR applications. That means every component in the standalone headset was selected with that purpose in mind.

Despite the many arguments in favor of standalone VR headsets, it took quite a while before we started seeing real products. As I write this there are only three products worth mentioning and they all come from existing names in modern VR. Let’s have a look at these three independent HMDs and see what they have to offer.

Oculus Go HMD

Oculus Go

It’s easy to forget that VR-pioneer Oculus is not the property of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s company quickly saw the potential of VR as the next step in social media and bought Oculus for billions. That’s with a “b”. So understanding the Oculus Go is much easier if you think of it as the “Facebook Go” instead. Nonetheless, this HMD is groundbreaking for more than just social VR applications. For one thing, it’s being sold at a very low price point. Oculus is asking for just $200 at retail, which puts the Oculus Go in the same price category as low-midrange smartphones.

While we don’t have proof yet, the Go is probably being sold close to (or even below) cost. This is a strategy also employed by video game console makers. The intention is to get their platform into people’s hands easily and then make the real money via the sale of applications.

The Oculus Go is set to launch (or was, depending on when you read this) early in 2018. Even before launch, more than 1000 applications of all types were confirmed for the Go. That’s a very strong lineup and slots the Go into an already well-stocked Oculus store. The hardware inside the Go is after all based on the same mobile hardware that powers the Samsung Gear, which is actually an Oculus product. In essence, apps designed for the Gear can easily be ported to the Go. In some cases they’ll just run without modification.

On a hardware level it makes the low price tag of the Go even less believable. Oculus has really taken a long hard look at the design of current HMDs. Even their own premium Rift HMD isn’t exactly the easiest device to slip onto your head. Just like the Google Daydream HMDs, the Go uses a soft fabric material for its external finish. Most HMDs aimed at “tech geeks” have hard plastic shells. The Go is clearly meant to live in living rooms and other casual environs. It’s packing a very high-resolution “fast-switching” LCD and, well, that’s all we really know at this point. I fully expect it to run something like the Snapdragon 835 chipset or something close to it.

Google Daydream Standalone

Google Daydream Standalone

Google is largely responsible for inventing cheap mobile VR cases that use smartphones. Their original Google Cardboard concept took the VR world by storm and it wasn’t long before every plastic-molding company in China was knocking out some sort of plastic Cardboard clone.

Things have come a long way since then, and Google itself upped the ante by releasing its Google Daydream VR HMDs, which were designed to only work with a small range of phones. That’s probably why it never had much mass appeal. They did, however, manage to raise the bar for mobile VR significantly by mandating minimum screen and optical standards in Daydream-certified phones. With the Daydream standalone system Google has taken complete control of the product to ensure everything meets its vision.

The key feature that’s worth pointing out right at the start is a technology that they call “WorldSense”. This is essentially another take on the “inside-out” tracking technology that we also saw with the Windows Mixed Reality Headsets. By using sensors to track what’s around the user, there’s no need for base stations or external cameras. This is essential for a standalone, untethered solution, otherwise you are limited to the reduced head-tracking used by cellphone-based HMDs.

There are actually two different hardware versions of the standalone Daydream. One is being made by Lenovo, which is better known for making laptops. The other is being made by HTC, which is of course behind the HTC Vive. HTC is therefore a true VR Titan and lends a lot of credibility to the hardware side of things.

In terms of specifications we don’t really know all that much about the standalone Daydream, but there’s another standalone VR headset that might actually reveal just about everything brewing under the hood.

HTC Focus Headset

HTC Focus

As far as we know, the HTC Focus is essentially a Google Daydream HMD with all of the “Google” removed from it. Instead of a Google app store and services, HTC has created its own “HTC Wave” platform that serves as a software development environment for apps. This plays host to HTC Viveport, which is HTC’s content platform.

HTC itself is based in Taiwan, which means that they have a good understanding of the needs of the Chinese market. Right now there is no reason to think that HTC is going to bring either Wave or Focus to non-Chinese territories, mainly because they have an agreement with Google to that effect. However, if the Focus ends up being a big success in those markets, don’t be surprised to see it elsewhere eventually.

The hardware in the Focus is quite impressive and gives us an idea of what the Daydream unit from HTC might be like as well. It has a super AMOLED screen and sports the cutting-edge Snapdragon 835 system-on-a-chip at its heart. Just like the Daydream it also has “world-scale” tracking, but there’s no hint at all of Google’s branded version of this technology. So we don’t know if the Focus is just using de-branded Google software.

Standalone and Deliver

This is just the first wave of dedicated standalone VR headsets. Much is going to hinge on how successful these products end up being. Things are looking good, though. They are much more affordable and already have hundreds if not thousands of applications. Add the potential power of social VR to the mix and we might be seeing significant uptake. Will these HMDs be any good? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Augmented Reality

What Could an AR World Look Like?

It’s easy to dismiss augmented reality (AR) or its more impressive cousin Mixed Reality (MR) as being a little faddish; just interesting technological toys that will either completely disappear or just take their place next to any number of other mainstream electronic amusements. But what if I told you that AR could become such a fundamental technology we would not recognize the world in which it had achieved its final level of advancement?

AR has the potential to change so many aspects of the way we live our lives that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. I have an idea.

AR demo

Who Wore it Best?

One of the fundamental developments that has to happen in order for a AR world to become a feasible reality is the rise of wearable technology. Right now most of our main computing devices are ones we carry in our pockets and backs. We hold them in our hands separate from ourselves. Yet it seems that the future of technology is to wear them like clothes and accessories. We are already seeing this with fitness trackers and smartwatches. VR head-mounted devices certainly also count as wearable, but obviously you can’t wear it wherever you go, unless you like tripping over things and wandering into traffic.

We’ve seen primitive AR wearables such as the Google Glass, but what’s needed goes beyond this. Think of something more advanced than a Microsoft Hololens, but the size and shape of a Google Glass. Why stop there? What about AR contact lenses? Perhaps even AR eye implants. All of these technologies are being looked at or actively developed as we speak today. There’s little doubt in my mind that AR/MR technology is going to get much more personal than it is today. The AR world is based on the idea that we’ll spend more of our time with AR switched on than with it switched off.

A Million Little Windows

We live in a world absolutely dominated by screen. Every computer, television, smartphone, or tablet adds another window into the digital world. It’s gone even beyond this now, with electronic signage everywhere. You can’t walk through a mall or a train station without being bombarded by screens at every turn. Everywhere you go you see people staring at some screen or another.

AR has the potential to do away with every physical screen. After all, when the whole world is your digital playground, why go to all the trouble of setting up physical displays? Already, with the tech demos of Microsoft's Windows Holographic platform, we’ve seen virtual displays that can be summoned and banished easily. Need ten small screens? Just click a button. Need one cinema-sized display? Easy peasy. Any shape, any size – it’s possible. Attach a virtual TV to a real wall if you want or have it float in front of you wherever you go.

AR tower game

A New Aesthetic

How much of what you own only exists to be looked at? Posters, paintings, figures, sculptures, and many other objects that we own and place in our homes and workplaces don’t serve any function other than looking pretty. It doesn’t really matter that they are tangible for them to do their job. So what if you only had physical possessions that performed a tangible function, such as a chair you can sit on or a table you can work on?

For someone not looking at the future world through an AR lens it may seem like a strange and bland place. No marking on the outside of buildings. No signage. No paint. Nothing. If it’s not purely functional there will be no reason to physically produce it.

You’ll have different “skins” for your apartment or house that can be changed whenever you get tired of it. The various people who live in a home don’t even have to use the same skins. Your teenager could have their heavy metal room theme, but all you see is a nice neat room.

Shared Spaces

That brings up another interesting aspect of this new AR world. While we’ll all share the basic physical space, there’s no reason for two people to live in the same “world”. You could reskin the whole world. Make the city look the way you want to. Redesign your neighborhood. No one else has to see the world that fits your personality.

That doesn’t mean that you can't share certain aspects of your reality or that of others. If you want to watch a movie with someone else you’d share it so that you all can see it. Perhaps other people want to see, reuse, and remix your world skin. If you live with a significant other you might want to design something together. The possibilities will be endless.

New Friends and Old Friends

One of the most exciting things about the AR world is how it will let us relate to other people. Imagine seeing an AR projection of a person who is physically not there. But it could feel as if they are sitting right across from you. More importantly, that other person needn’t have been real in the first place. While AI assistants such as Siri and Alexa live in our phones today, one day they may be AR projections that relate to us as we would with real human beings. It’s a way to give those virtual personalities a sense of solid existence.

We already have such vibrant virtual worlds that we can only glimpse through the little “windows” we call computer screens. Wouldn’t it be grand if the whole world could tap into that creativity and wonder?

The Future of AR, or is an AR world THE Future?

As you can see, AR has the potential to change almost everything about how we relate to the real world. Right now it might seem like a cute technological curiosity, but one day it might be the very fabric of our social order.

Or maybe somewhere in between. Hey, I’ve been wrong before!

ML One

Magic Leap or Magic Trick? What's Up With Magic Leap?

The last few years have been marked by some major leaps forward in augmented-, virtual-, and now mixed- reality. So much innovation is happening that it can be easy to forget that almost right from the start an enigmatic company has been waiting in the wings to sweep everyone else from the board.

That company is known as Magic Leap and it is probably one of the most mysterious names in the AR/MR business; so much so that for a long time it wasn’t really clear what it is they planned to sell. Today we know a bit more about the company, but they have been surprisingly good at avoiding leaks. Yet what has been teased by Magic Leap seems genuinely exciting, and if it’s more than just marketing fluff it could make all other MR innovations look childish in comparison. So let’s take a moment to recap what Magic Leap is and what we know about it.

magic leap whale

Silent Partners

Stop for a moment and consider the fact that Magic Leap was founded in 2010 and to this day has not released so much as a product shot. Yet the company managed to raise more than half a billion dollars all those years ago to develop their ideas. Tech giants Google and Qualcomm (who make your smartphone hardware) are both major investors in the company.

Before becoming “Magic Leap”, the company was known as “Magic Leap Studios”. The “Studios” version of the company was seated in the entertainment industry. It made movies and other traditional media. Then something changed; for now, the exact details are hidden behind pure stonewalling. The company did release an AR app all the way back in 2011 after becoming a corporation, but not much else was known.

Pulling in the Talent

In 2014, Magic Leap started making waves thanks to a few big names that started joining up. This was important, because these people were telling us by proxy that Magic Leap is doing something special. We might not know exactly what, but these people DO know and are convinced enough to drop everything and get on board.

Game designer Graeme Devine was one of the first notable joiners. Devine has worked for the absolute cream of the gaming crop, most notably ID Software – the guys responsible for so much graphical innovation. You might recall that ID Software also gave us programming genius John Carmack, who also believes in VR so much that he left ID to join Oculus permanently. Now even the CEO of Google is on their board of directors. Clearly a lot of very smart people believe in whatever it is that Magic Leap is selling, and so we should be paying attention!

So, What Are They Selling?

Curious? Well so are all of us! Various technology news outlets have done some digging over the years, so there are a couple of things we do know. The main fact everyone seems to be sure of is that Magic Leap is making an MR headset. In fact, they were making a mixed-reality product long before anyone knew to call it “mixed reality”. We haven’t actually seen even a real hardware prototype, but there are some patent mockups. For example, look at this picture from an article in The Verge.

Pretty futuristic! Other pictures show a totally different device that looks more like traditional eyeglasses. There’s also a unit clipped to the belt, suggesting that some hardware will be outside of the actual headset itself. We also don’t know if it uses offboard computing power or if everything is built in.

We have no idea how close the company is to consumer hardware, but in 2017 they indicated more money was needed.

The company was valued at an insane six billion dollars as I write this, so I have little doubt additional funding will be coming.

What Does the MR Look Like?

In the end the proof is in the pudding – the actual hardware the experiences will be delivered on. In that department they’ve had plenty to show. Look at this demo from 2015:

This is the embodiment of what they are trying to achieve. In particular, the realistic rendering of light so that virtual objects appear totally solid and seamless with the real world is apparent. Look at how virtual light sources interact with real objects. Even better, there’s occlusion so that virtual objects can move BEHIND real ones. The little robot floating between the table legs in particular is jaw-dropping.

One of the key technologies that Magic Leap seems to be using is the simulation of light fields. In other words, they use a computational process that calculates the path of all the photons on a given volume. It treats light as a sort of magnetic field. Light field technology is set to be a major part of both VR and AR, but very few hardware systems that use it have been seen. Also, such systems require an insane amount of processing power.

For example, cameras that capture light fields in order to create volumetric video need their own offboard server unit to process the data. I suspect that the main challenge Magic Leap is facing has to do with how to squeeze the tech down into something small enough to use.

Will Magic Leap Change Everything

Magic Leap is pursuing several Holy Grails of mixed reality all at once. It is an incredibly ambitious project, but with some of the finest minds and almost unlimited money behind it. Should the company succeed, we are going to see a generational leap in mixed-reality technology that will push the envelope hard. Will they make it? No one knows. If they do, things will never be the same.