Cutting Through The CES VR/AR Fluff

CES has taken place once again, and this time the two huge trends were voice integration (not our cup of tea for this column), and virtual reality. However, many CES promises in the latter category lack the substance for actual market impact, while others paint a clearer picture of where this industry is heading. Let’s cut through the fluff.

Lenovo Windows VR Headset

Lenovo’s VR headset, a prototype Windows Holographic device targeting a sub-$400 price point, caught a good deal of attention at CES. Conceptually, it’s clear why: At roughly half the price of the other desktop VR devices, considerably lighter, with higher resolution, no external cameras needed, and a flip-up design to easily switch between desktop and VR views, this is a device tailor-made for a professional work environment and the general consumer, as compared to the Vive or Oculus, which are clearly intended for entertainment.

But this device raised so many more questions than it answered. Namely, where is Microsoft’s strategy for VR? The Holographic reveal from Microsoft was clearly targeting AR experiences, but now there seems to be a desire to bridge the gap with VR as well. But the two are very, very different, and the fact that desktop apps will work on a virtual screen in VR isn’t much of an achievement. Cheap software for other VR headsets already mirrors the desktop in a “giant screen” configuration in VR.

Also, while the close feature parity between the Vive and Oculus Rift allows for developers to port software between the two platforms simply enough, Microsoft seems to be building its VR ecosystem as a separate entity, much like Windows Phone apps came late to the party as a separate player from the AppStore and Google Play Store. This didn’t work out particularly well in the past, and without a considerable edge from a feature standpoint, history looks like it may repeat.

If this headset were a standalone lightweight PC competing with Chromebooks at a sub-$500 price point, but in a VR form factor, this would have been my pick of the show. As it is, it’s mostly fluff.

HTC Vive Accessories

There were a number of accessories for HTC’s Vive at CES this year, and while most seemed to fall into the software chicken/egg scenario (no use unless software written to include, but no hardware install base to incentivize software customization), the standout accessory was: “wireless.”

The TPCast accessory, which turns the Vive into a wireless headset (with a battery pack in the pocket), was announced for worldwide release. This accessory promises a lack of wires, but with no noticeable latency. For the “full room” VR experiences that the Vive is trying to cater to, going wireless is a HUGE difference. It’s very much worth keeping an eye on consumer reactions to this accessory as it increases its footprint.

Asus ZenFone AR

Finally, someone has made a smartphone that combines Google’s Tango (a depth-sensing augmented reality sort of technology), with its Daydream specs. This is possibly the most exciting VR/AR item at CES from a non-fluff standpoint.

This should be looked at less as a consumer release, and more as a device for the mass-market developer crowd. There is no current, formal integration between Tango and Daydream, and without that, the hardware combo is nothing but two different feature bullet points on a list.

But this indicates a direction for Android VR that’s very promising, and suggests a possible addition to the Daydream platform of “inside-out” positional tracking, allowing phone VR to replicate the “full-room” VR experiences the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive currently enjoy.

With the ZenFone AR in developers’ hands, and the proper support from Google, this could be the inception point for a leap forward in phone-based VR/AR, and a considerable feature “one-up” for the Android platform. It’s likely Apple will  be unable to compete with this development.

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