Category Archives: AR and VR

A salient warning about “social VR”?

Will social VR of the kind currently being developed really be what a mass market is looking for? (image via Upload VR)

Balaji Krishnan appears to be a man on a mission: to offer a wake-up call to those engaged in the nascent world of “social VR” that the kind of future they’re chasing might not exist. He’s most notably pursuing this mission in op-ed pieces. In March he put his case Upload VR under the succinct title: In Why Social VR Probably Won’t Work the Way Social VR Developers Think, (subsequently reprinted on May 1st by PSFK.com). In April he followed it up with a more targeted piece for VentureBeat: Sorry, Zuck: AR & VR won’t replace TVs or phones.

In the first article Krishnan – the founder and CEO of Dabkick, which credits itself as developing the first “true Social VR experience“, states his case pretty clearly through the title of the Upload VR article: that social VR may not work the way most “social VR” developers – he notes Valve, High Fidelity, AltSpace VR, Linden Lab and Facebook in particular – expect.

Balaji Krishnan

This is not to say he thinks these will fail; rather than they won’t achieve the kind of mass-market prevalence we’ve seen with the likes of smartphones – the technology VR is often touted against as having the same disruptive potential.

Now, to be fair, I don’t agree with all of his points. In particular, the slow growth in the volumes of shipped headsets to date is not indicative that they won’t grow faster in the future; particularly as the technology finds its footing and the price-point computational power required for high-end systems comes down and overall quality and ergonomics of headsets improves with future generational developments. But – and here’s where I do agree with Krishnan: the hardware and the price-point aren’t the key to getting VR to appeal to a mass market.

Rather, the key to getting VR viral in the manner of smartphones is presenting it as having a convenient relevance to people – whether as a source of entertainment or social engagement or business or gaming or whatever – that’s important. And that’s actually a tough nut to crack.

The pervasiveness of smartphones is in part down to their sheer convenience and in part down to the organic way in which their capabilities have naturally grown to encompass applications and uses outside of voice communication. In trying to find the “killer app” for VR, it feels as if it is being forced down various paths in which it is unlikely to succeed in the same way as the smartphone (image via the BBC)

Take smartphones for example – as Krishnan does.That they have become a central pillar of many people’s social activities, spawning an entire ecosystem of applications and opportunities for sharing and creative experience wasn’t planned or engineered from the outset. It came about because someone realised that just as MP3 players could offer music on the go, then so could a ‘phone. And if you stuck a camera on a ‘phone, people might like to take pictures with it. It was an organic process – one which never lost sight of the ‘phone original intent: a convenient means of communicating, and built on that convenience over time until the smartphone became an indispensable part of our daily lives.

DabKick’s “social VR experience”

However you look at it, VR isn’t anywhere close to the ubiquitous nature of something like a smartphone – nor, really, can it be.  So trying to present or engineering a future where it can be is perhaps shooting wide of the mark. And really, the idea of “social VR” is another way of trying to engineer a future for VR which might not really stand up to the litmus test of what a “mass market” actually wants.

As it is, we’ve had around a decade of organic development and growth of a “digital social ecosystem”; one that offers many, many ways of engagement which are flexible enough to meet our needs wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing.  Krishnan argues that if “social VR” is to succeed, it must feed into this ecosystem, nurture it, support it and add value to it; seeking to simply “revolutionise” it isn’t enough. It must be intuitive enough to be used quickly, easily and conveniently wherever someone is and whatever they might otherwise be doing. if not, then it’s unlikely to spark people’s imaginations enough to buy into it as massively as is hoped.

So where does that leave something like Sansar? On the one hand, and as I’ve oft stated, it is pretty clear that there are markets where VR can have a significant impact. As such, if Linden Lab can hit all the desired nails on the head, then the platform could enjoy considerable success within those markets. On the other, the idea that it could become a broad-based “social” environment, outside of very specific use-cases, perhaps doesn’t stand up so well, for the reasons outlined above. Simply put; people can already undertake wide-ranging social activities through digital means, individually and collectively; simply dangling “VR” in front of them may not necessarily persuade them they need to change how they’re doing so.

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Whither goes VR?

2016 was the year of virtual hype whereas 2017 is the year of actual realities, in terms of what is achievable from a business sense related to market size, opportunities and potential revenues. Should developers or publishers get involved now? Absolutely but with an intelligent approach and realistic expectations of what these early days sales returns could be.

So considers Sam Watts, director of immersive technologies at Make Real, in a comment quoted by Jem Alexander, in the first part of his series penned for Develop looking at the hype, tech, hope, hang-ups and potentials of Virtual Reality.

Jem Alexander

The piece stands as a reasoned look beyond the hype of VR’s 2016 rebirth, thanks to the arrival of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Cardboard, Daydream, Gear VR and – perhaps most importantly of all, at least in terms of sales – Playstation VR.

Yes, there has been a lot of hype, which the first year of consumer facing VR really hasn’t matched. Some have seen this as cause to deride the VR movement as a whole, relegating it to the role of “fad” – which in itself is perhaps a tad premature.

In writing this two-part series, Jem Alexander avoids both extremes and instead offers a discussion which is reasonably balanced and reasoned – and offers a perspective from many of those at the sharp end of the industry. In the first part, entitled  Where are we now, they offer an honest assessment of the market which is both positive while carrying a solid note of caution for those considering taking the VR plunge, as shown in the quote from Sam Watts, above.

There are several reasons why VR’s first year hasn’t lived up to the hype. For a start, the hardware isn’t exactly off-the-shelf, as those talking to Alexander notes. There’s plenty of room for improvements in the tech and the quality of the experience and offer it at a much lower price-point than today. Thus, taking the first year’s sale figures as being indicative of VR’s future is liable to be misleading.

The approach taken by some of the big manufacturers also didn’t help: when the Vive and Oculus launched their supporting ecosystem of games and applications was comparatively weak. Only Sony really offered a substantive ecosystem for the Playstation – and even this was derided in some sections of the VR media for being “merely” VR ports of existing games.

Sansar a city street scene created by Paul Lapointe Credit: Linden Lab

Another aspect which potentially hasn’t helped VR to date is the “room-sized” versus the “seat” VR experience. As noted above, existing games ported to a VR environment is looked down on by many in the VR media, who have preferred to focus on all the juicy tech of room sensors, motion trackers, and associated gizmos which offer a “truly immersive” experience.

But room-sized VR predicates itself on people having the room to indulge themselves and / or the willingness to spend time setting-up / taking down their wonderful gizmos. And what does all this emphasis on freedom of movement say to those who aren’t gifted with good mobility?  So is room-sized VR really the be-all of VR at home?

Those Alexander speaks to tend to think not, preferring to point to VR needing both. This is something which is picked-up in the second part of the series, Where do we go?, which also brings Sansar into the frame of the discussion.

Unity CEO John Riccitiello

As with the first part of the series, Alexander opens Part 2 with another level-headed analysis of to how fast VR is liable to develop. Unity CEO John Riccitiello, for example, doesn’t see VR really starting to take off until 2018 or 2019.

His view is echoed  by Tim Sweeney, CEO at Epic. He again cites the need for improved hardware, with more favourable price-points  as being essential for the high-end VR market, something he doesn’t see forthcoming for a “couple of generations”. This puts his view in roughly the same 2-3 year time frame as Brendan Iribe at Oculus VR, who has indicated it’ll be around that long before his company will have their next generation hardware on the market.

The core of this part is an examination of two emerging aspects of VR: the “out-of-home” experience and “social VR”.

The former is the idea that rather than perhaps having dedicated space at home in which to experience VR, people will instead head off to the local “VR arcade” or “VR theatre” to enjoy a fully immersive experience of some description. This might sound fanciful, but The Void, a New York and London-based out-of-home VR experience has seen OptiTrack, the company behind much of tech used in the game, see an “explosion” of sales in the technology.

The Void is spectacular,” Alexander quotes says Unity’s Riccitiello. “I think we’re going to see hundreds of these dedicated locations for entertainment. Imagine a room four times this big. Here is the bar and there are six different experiences that are available around the room. I would definitely go. Imagine, In 1000 square feet you could have DisneyLand. All of it.”

When you think of the potential for not only immersive, group gaming environments, but things like group training and simulation, out-of-home centres could become a practical part of the entertainment and business landscapes, offering low-cost access to a wide range of VR environments and experiences for the public and clients.

For “social VR”, the emphasis very much turns to Sansar. While he doesn’t directly praise the platform, it’s fairly clear he sees Sansar, with its potential to truly democratise how people can build their own VR spaces as a potential cornerstone of the home VR market. If it can truly replicate SL’s “secret sauce” in giving users genuine creative freedom in bringing truly tailored and personal VR experiences into their homes, free from the filtering of how professional VR developers and studios think people want to have them, then the future potential with the platform could be enormous.

Through both parts of his examination of VR, Alexander offers much to read and consider, particularly for those who have extended doubts about VR and how it might fit the broader scheme of things (at least in terms of entertainment). As such VR Check-In Part 1 and Part 2 are well worth a side-by-side read.

VR and MR catch-up: March 2017

The Oculus CR-1 - US $100 drop in price, and US $100 reduction for Touch controllers

The Oculus CR-1 – US $100 drop in price, and US $100 reduction for Touch controllers

Here’s another rapid-fire update on the worlds of VR and MR as I’ve been able to track a few things.

Oculus Rift

Oculus VR has dropped the price of the Oculus Rift headset and the Oculus Touch controller by $100 each. At launch, the headset cost Us $599 and the controllers, released later and a crucial part of the system, were priced at US $199. The new pricing brings the price for both down to the US $598 mark – just US $100 more than the Playstation VR bundle, and makes the Rift headset much cheaper than its main rival – the HTC Vive.

“Cheaper” is of course a relative term. Despite work to allow the Rift operate with lower-specifications systems (see my last round-up), to get the fullest out of the system you still need a heft PC with a hefty price.

There is still no news on when the untethered version of the Rift, with the project name Santa Cruz, will be ready for consumers. The only major update is that when it does appear, it will be marketed via Oculus VR’s “lower end” mobile division.

Speaking at the announcement of the price drop, Oculus VR’s former CEO (now head of Desktop VR), Brendan Iribe, indicated that the company is focusing on the next generation of VR systems, which he defines as being “a very big leap from where we are today”. However, consumers are unlikely to see anything on this front for at least another two years.

On February 1st, the ZeniNax case against Facebook / Oculus drew to a close, with the plaintiff being awarded US $500 million in damages over alleged code theft. While Facebook is seeking to have the verdict set aside, on February 24th, ZeniMax filed an injunction seeking to block Oculus VR from using the disputed code in its products. The news came via several outlets at the time, including Ars Technica, which pointed out that the injunction probably won’t succeed, but that if it does, it could be massively disruptive to both Oculus and Samsung, as the code is also used in the Gear VR.

HTC Vive 2?

Rumours are circulating that HTC are working on the “Vive 2”, an improved version of their headset.  Details have been sketchy and a little confused; one early report from November 2016 suggested the “Vive 2” would be a wireless / WiFi system, but given this came out shortly before HTC and Vive X Accelerator company TPCAST announced a “tether-less” WiFi kit for the existing Vive, (see me last round-up, linked to above) that report many have been incorrect.

However, other sources have indicated that “Vive 2” is in development, but has not release date. It is also said to have the internal code-name of “Oasis”. Has someone at HTC been reading Ready Player One?

In the meantime, HTC aren’t cutting the Vive’s price – but they are offering a new finance plan to help purchase it. They’ve also announced two new accessories: a Deluxe Audio Strap and the Tracker. Both are priced at a “mere” US $99. The Deluxe Audio Strap is in fact a rigid, Oculus-style head mount for the headset, complete with headphones.

Vive's new rigid head mount for the display, complete with audio headphones. Your for US $99

Vive’s new rigid head mount for the display, complete with audio headphones. Yours for US $99

The Tracker, due to ship in Q2 2017, is essentially a sensor unit  which allows game and hardware developers to turn real-life props into virtual weapons / gaming pieces, from guns to swords, to bats and so on.  Once connected to a peripheral, it allows the Vive’s lighthouse sensors to detect and track it, enabling it to be visualised in-game.

Headset Sales

As has been widely reported, sales of VR headsets have been far slower than the early hype predicted. No surprises there in many respects. Currently, Sony’s Playstation VR system is the highest-selling – but that’s just about to hit the million units mark. Oculus Rift and Vive are some way behind, with 243,00 and 420,00 unit sales respectively at the end of 2016.

This plateauing of sales has led to some pundits almost writing-off VR. However, while it would seem likely VR will be a niche product when compared to the everyday potential of Augmented Reality / Mixed Reality (AR / MR), it’s worth remembering that consumer-centric VR is only at the first generation stage. It is hampered by cost and the need to be hooked into a high-specification PC. Over time, some of these aspects – especially cost – will come down, encouraging more widespread interest / adoption, especially in those markets outside of games where VR could have a real impact: education, training, simulation, design, architecture. So it is perhaps a little premature to be pointing at current sales figures and declaring VR a “fad” or similar.

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Magic Leap: DOA, over-hyped or still possible?

Well, maybe it IS only a lens. Not too long ago, Magic Leap were proclaiming they had more than just a lens, but a Photonic Chip. The Infromation thinks it was just more hype

Well, maybe it IS only a lens. Not too long ago, Magic Leap were proclaiming they had more than just a lens, but a Photonic Chip. The Infromation thinks it was just more hype. Credit: Wired.

Magic Leap has been the most controversial company in the emerging market of new VR, AR and MR technologies. Super-secretive but boasting an influx of US $1.4 billion in capital from leading technical and entertainments companies  – including Google – it has drawn a lot of attention, despite almost nothing of its technology being generally revealed.

Magic Leap promises a headset system which will be as easy to wear and remove as a pair of glass – but crucially, and despite several years of development work , has not revealed anything of what this headset might look like beyond various patent filings. In the meantime, the company has continued to release astonishing videos of their product’s apparent capabilities. Some of these were undeniably special effects enhanced pieces – but it now appears that this might be the case with more of the videos than the company were actually willing to let on.

In particular, on December 8th, the paywalled site The Information published a report on Magic Leap indicating that at least one of the more recent videos – that of office workers playing a shoot-’em-up game which was stated as being filmed using Magic Leap’s own technology was actually enhanced by Magic Leap partner, Weta Workshop (Weta’s head, Sir Richard Taylor, was an early investor in the company, and his business partner, director Peter Jackson, is an advisor). This has led to questions being raised over just how genuine Magic Leap is, and how real their product might in fact be.

The Verge summarises the report from The Information, pointing to the less-than-honest video and making mention of Magic Leap’s massive test rig, called The Beast, and the fact that as yet, the company hasn’t moved beyond a tethered headset style device which is claimed to give an inferior result when compared to Microsoft’s HoloLens. This has prompted others to question whether Magic Leap is dead – or potentially could be DOA, given it appears to lag behind what might be somewhat comparable products such as the HoloLens.

Magic Leap haven't been entirely secretive about the size of some of their test rigs. Credit: Peter Yang / Wired

Magic Leap haven’t been entirely secretive about the size of some of their test rigs. Credit: Peter Yang / Wired

As it is, the report from The Information stands sharply at odds with those from the likes of Wired, where Peter Yang from Wired spent time with Magic Leap back in April 2016, using that experience to tell The Untold Story of Magic Leap. Then, shortly ahead of The Information’s piece, and at the end of November, Forbes’ David Ewalt sat down with Magic Leap’s founder, Romy Abovitz. Like The Information’s Reed Albergotti, both Yang and Ewalt reference the fact that Magic leap utilises a headset rather than “glasses”, but that’s about all their articles have in common with Albergotti’s view. So where does that leave us?

First off, scepticism is healthy. There are many promises being made around VR / AR and MR, many of which could well be a mix of hype, hope and wishful endeavour. WE also have little ide just what reporters are being shown – and there is no denying Abovitz enjoys his role as unconventional showman.

Even so, it’s hard to see Magic Leap as purely being smoke and mirrors and flimflam; Abovitz has a track record of innovation and product delivery – he sold his medical robotic company for US $1.7 billion in 2009. Magic Leap has also made no secret of being in things for a long haul, developing a new paradigm in computing, while Albergotti acknowledges the company is now working towards a pair of glasses type of headset, albeit with different technology for their earlier work. Thus, writing them off entirely could be a premature.

A final point is that the company has never gone beyond saying a consumer product will be appearing “soonish”. Ewalt, writing for Forbes, estimates Magic Leap has perhaps another 18 months to go before a consumer launch. That’s a long time, given the HoloLens and Meta’s offerings will be out will before then. but the latter two are liable to have price tags of US $1,000 or more. If this is the case, are they really liable to corner the market, particularly if Magic Leap comes up with a product as user-friendly (and potentially superior) as Peter Yang at Wired feels will be the case – and at a lower price point, even if it is based on technology other than the hyped “Digital Lightfield™”?

The only thing we perhaps can say as a result of this is the hype trains – positive and negative – on what VR / AR / MR might or might not deliver will likely continue to rumble forward for a while yet.

With thanks to Roblem VR