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
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 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
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.