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February 4th, 2018

CES 2018 Recap

Virtual and Augmented Reality

(VR/AR)

Neil Singh Virtual Augmented Reality VR AR VUDream

Neil Singh, VR/AR Contributor

The biggest excitement at CES this year was by far VR and AR technology. Even CES organizers said this was the year where they had the most virtual and augmented reality products on display.
 
Hardware is abundant now in the field, and there are VR/AR manufacturers popping up everywhere. Each one touting a unique point of difference in their unique hardware. Most of these can easily be dismissed as they are not significant enough or noticeable enough by most users to determine a unique sales proposition over a technical point of difference.
 
All the companies that got into the action early such as Oculus, HTC etc. had elaborate displays of their gear on show, a lot of which is targeted at a gaming audience.
 
If any product was to be held as an award winner at #CES 2018 it was the HTC Vive Pro…
HTC Vive Pro Headset Virtual Reality VR Headset

HTC’s Vive website has been updated very quickly to accommodate all the accolades they received from numerous critics like CNET and TechRadar and about 20 others.

What Vive Pro offers and speaks about very openly is ‘true to life immersion’. Among other things, their ecosystem of VR is a combination of spatial audio, wireless devices such as rackets and controllers, among your usual array of gaming-centric accessories.

A brief summary of the HTC’s Vive Pro technical specs reveal the following: accelerometer, gyroscope, Lighthouse laser tracking system, dual front-facing cameras, USB-C 3.0, DisplayPort 1.2, AMOLED screen at 2,880 x 1,600 (615 PPI) 90Hz and an operational range at 33 x 33 feet, which is significantly larger than the play space which its rival Oculus offers.

With that said and with all the devices on display and the hype the question that I had after all of it was… Would you or I buy one? Despite the technical achievements of HTC, the aesthetic and practical appeal of their Vive Pro from a user standpoint was lacking!

I realize very well that it is a difficult challenge to engineer this type of hardware in a form factor that is ‘wearable’, but even so after many years of development and the capital which some of these larger VR headset companies have access to, one would have thought that by now they would have designed a device which was perhaps a little more aesthetically pleasing! and one that perhaps did not feel so intrusive on your head.

These are not headsets, these are helmets, huge, clunky, somewhat heavy devices with add-ons ‘that might have easily been built into the original design with a bit of thought’ and sadly these offerings by HTC and Oculus fall far short of the ‘mainstream VR experience’ which would be the catalyst for greater adoption.

Another point to note is that GPU hardware to use these devices on is fairly expensive; software ecosystems tend to be somewhat limited to SteamVR or console platforms. So when all things are considered, VR from this point of view is still a novelty.  The tech is amazing but it does not overcome the fact that the majority of people would not use one.

Think of it like this, remember in the 90’s where we had cell phones the size of bricks, the average person would carry one as well as an 8-track walkman, maybe a heavy laptop, and also have a pager? and then after quite some time around 2007-ish Apple released the first iPhone, the first smartphone and it did all that neat stuff that all those many other devices did but it did it in a device that fits in the palm of your hand.

It was merely the form factor and aesthetic appeal of the initial device outside of its offered functionality that made the iPhone ‘user-friendly’ and made it lustful as an item to own by the majority.

VR devices are yet to make such a transition! and to be honest this type of transition would be needed within a few years to really wow us!

Many vendors such as Razer and also smaller companies were showing off haptic devices.

CES 2018 Razer Haptic Feedback Devices

It is clear that the market for VR is encouraging immersive gaming, next level gaming was always going to be about sensory experiences. It is still a little hard to imagine though a typical family purchasing a number of these devices all for the sake of gaming.

I must say though haptic devices did impress me, more than the actual headsets. Some companies have developed excellent sensory feedback on wearable technology that works with VR.

Taking the focus off gaming a bit and looking more at commercial VR applications Hewlett Packard introduced a backpack HP Z VR Backpack PC which can be used with products like the HTC Vive, and have strongly been targeting commercial usage in industries such as engineering or manufacturing.

Let’s take a deep dive, outside of the usual suspects such as HTC and Oculus, who else was showing VR headsets and was there anything mind-blowing?

Enter Pimax who launched a ‘claimed’ 4k (per eye) at 3840x2160 resolution Mobile VR headset with a 200-degree field of view! hmm 2x 4k well that is technically 8k!

Pimax has some cool VR kit, now it is not any smaller to wear than any other headset although the head strap seemed a bit more comfortable than most.

There is an aesthetic quality to Pimax and their offering and it does seem a little more user-friendly, the headpiece is a little less clunky than the HTC, Pimax is claiming this is the first true ‘8k VR headset’ they have included some controllers and accessories.

Pimax 8k FOV VR Headset

When tested by Linus Tech Tips recently his review did say that the resolution and field of vision for the Pimax headset was better than most but the feeling of nausea was still apparent, unlike competitors who have been working hard to address such motion sickness issues from the usage of VR hardware.

It is worth noting though that Pimax is a startup, they are not as well funded as some of the bigger players and they have made some bold moves so far even with this product which is currently in Beta, it is likely that they will have a refined version of the technology by #CES 2019 or #Computex 2019.

Frames per second and refresh rates on 4k lenses were always going to be a challenge and Pimax has at least attempted to fine tune this aspect of their VR Headset making it unique enough to stand out.

Next in line is the Samsung, powered by Oculus technology but in a form factor which boasts a lightweight physical shell, but still offers a fully featured VR experience, Samsung was displaying Gear VR.

Of the many headsets on offer, this was probably one of the lighter and more practical VR items on display. I was very critical of HTC and other VR vendors making clunky helmets and calling them VR headsets, well Samsung paid attention! and is pitching their product as comfortable.

In their own words: “the Gear VR is engineered with your comfort in mind and is designed to feel comfortable when you’re wearing it.”

Samsung GearVR Controller virtual reality CES

Samsung therefore has taken a sensible approach to trying to solve what I perceive as the #1 adoption problem with VR today. Samsung having a strong interest in mobile are targeting Gear VR towards mobile users.

This is very smart given their sheer dominance in mobile devices and it opens up a possible VR market to Samsung which already has over 1 billion compatible devices globally.

Gear VR is nothing new it’s been around a few years but what is worth talking about is the business model approach from Samsung. It helps greatly that Samsung has said their device can be used with over 800 applications already. Use cases are what determine validation in the market.

Examining more haptic devices which add value to the VR experience ‘in particular for gaming’ some companies that impressed were the likes of Merge with their 6DoF blaster and also Cerevo with their ‘VR shoes’

VR Virtual Reality Merge 6DoF Blaster CES
The shoes simulate the sensory effect of different environments within a game like walking through grass or something, quite impressive if it can do things like the feeling of mud on your feet.
 
To conclude the VR segment all I can truly say is that #CES 2018 had so much to see and so little time when it came to this industry.
 
We are witnessing leaps and bounds and whilst all of the innovations are amazing in their own right there are ones that stand out, ones that make sense, companies that will have a great impact on VR in the next few years and companies that won’t.
 
The lesson to be learned here is that it is not necessarily the hardware available but instead the business models and use cases which will drive mainstream adoption.
 
In VR we are yet to explore vivid experiences of the ‘living internet’ as I define it:
“A web ecosystem which mimics an entire community, city commercial and residential infrastructure for digital assets where people congregate, interact, socialize and work.”
Will such an ecosystem be developed and if so who are the companies working on it?

Conclusion

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