VR and XR (extended reality) have been touted as technologies that will transform computing, content, education and industry by delivering new levels of immersion and collaboration. The promise of virtual reality is well understood and the overlay of digital with the real world stands to become hugely disruptive, but the actual reality is that we’re not there yet.
Facebook’s F8 conference this year was a clear illustration of the challenge: there’s a disconnect between the vision and current status. Facebook has remained steadfast in its commitment to Oculus as the future computing platform and sees it becoming central to the fabric of daily life. However, demand for Oculus today is still heavily driven by gaming.
This isn’t to say that gaming is the only demand driver, but XR traction more broadly is coming from opposite ends of the spectrum: enterprise and gaming. When the middle ground begins to embrace XR is when it truly starts to take on the characteristics of a "platform" catering to billions of users. However, this takes time.
I hear complaints that XR has “over promised and under delivered” but new technologies rarely have immediate, seismic impact. There is a gestation period. XR requires the maturity of a number of elements: software, silicon, hardware, content, APIs, developers… the list is enormous. The ecosystem is complex, but its development is a process and central to its ultimate success.
Autonomous vehicles are a comparable point here. The promise requires the fusion of multiple hardware and software elements that need to be hardened through miles of testing and packaged into a platform that can scale and fulfill mass market demand. This requires time and investment. Moreover, autonomy will arrive in incremental phases with increasing levels of sophistication.
This is exactly what we're seeing with XR. The market has gone from unwieldy, bulky headsets that require a physical tether to a PC, to compact and increasingly powerful “all in one” designs. While XR hasn’t seen the explosive demand that some expected, the market is witnessing steady incremental improvement in hardware, software, content and the overall experience.
Qualcomm's launch of the Snapdragon Smart Viewer reference design is further evidence of this. It builds on its XR1 chipset platform and previous reference designs but delivers a richer experience via the option to tether to a host device be it a PC or smartphone. This additional processing power enables features such as controllers with 6 degrees of freedom and eye tracking. Moreover, it’s packaged in a way that is designed to scale by lowering cost, encouraging development and accelerating time to market.
This builds on recent momentum with a string of Snapdragon-based devices, including HTC’s Vive Focus devices, Lenovo’s Mirage Solo, Microsoft’s Hololens 2, Oculus Quest and Google’s Glass Enterprise Edition 2. They are indicative of growing diversity, richer experiences and increasing maturity in the XR ecosystem. Moreover, they confirm that the future of VR and XR is in mobile form factors.
Momentum is shifting to products that can operate as a standalone device with the option to connect to another device for additional horsepower. This is an important transition given that 5G and mobile edge computing stand to take the same concept and supercharge it. The introduction of high throughput, low latency 5G connections and cloud computing at the network edge mean the horsepower of the data center will be accessible wirelessly to XR devices. This will take time but could be a crucial enabler of more compact yet more powerful form factors.
Progress requires iteration and investment to deliver success. This doesn’t happen in isolation nor without time and dedication. In the context of progress made in recent years and the opportunities ahead, it’s time to be optimistic about XR.
Geoff Blaber is vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. Based in California, Blaber heads CCS Insight’s Americas business and supports the range of clients located in this territory. Blaber's research focus spans a broad spectrum of mobility and technology, including the lead role in semiconductors. He is a well-known member of the analyst community and provides regular commentary to leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Financial Times and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.
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