Virtual reality and augmented reality are not always considered examples of “mobile-first” technologies, but this is where things are moving. Samsung has done much to establish VR as a mobile phenomenon with its Gear VR headset, but the most immersive user experiences are usually discussed in the context of solutions tied to an external PC or console. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR all offer admirable experiences but are tethered to a box that performs the heavy-duty processing.
Within a few years we’ll look back on 2017 as the Stone Age of VR. The concept of being physically tethered to a box, constantly tripping over a cable or being rudely interrupted as a cord snaps your head back into reality will seem bizarre.
Delivering a quality experience
The biggest and simplest reason is the quality of the experience. For VR, the magic comes from the depth of immersion. This is incredibly difficult to achieve but all too easy to shatter. Removing the tether allows the user to freely explore the virtual environment.
This also liberates the use cases and increases the total available market. There are only so many use cases (and users) that suit a single room constrained by a physical connection to a PC or console. Some gamers might be prepared to carry a VR rig with them, but that’s a minority. By taking the experience wireless, it opens a broad spectrum of opportunity. Education and training becomes addressable in immersive new ways and not just in the classroom. A mobile-based VR or AR device can be taken anywhere. It can be used freely around the home, in the car or elsewhere. It can address specific industry verticals such as construction, design, travel, medicine—the list goes on. Some of these use cases might seem far-fetched, but technology will advance, content will rapidly expand, form factors will shrink and use cases will proliferate.
This supports a key assumption: that AR and VR will ultimately converge. While today the two are viewed as separate, the two functions will come together with the headset enabling switching between AR, VR and mixed reality functions. This will become an inherently mobile experience both in terms of the hardware (smaller, lighter), the mode of operation and type of content / information that is either created or consumed. In the same way that the smartphone has evolved to become a different tool for a wide range of purposes and contexts, the headset will go through the same process.
The importance of wireless data
Wireless data becomes crucial to providing content, with Gigabit LTE and 5G being huge enablers. Today there are bulky designs and locally stored content but once truly mobile, headsets will create and require massive amounts of data. Capturing the world around them in high resolution, sharing that to the cloud and streaming in ultra-high definition will all become a reality. In the same way that smartphones benefit from highly optimized SoCs with integrated modem, cameras, Wi-Fi, sensor hubs and processors, it will be as important in VR and AR headsets. Probably more so.
This is why we’re seeing a platform approach to VR emerge. It’s critical that hardware, software and content are packaged appropriately to lower costs, encourage development, accelerate time to market and create an impactful user experience. Google is doing it with Daydream from a software perspective, repeating for VR what Android did for smartphones. Intel has announced Project Alloy, which plans to create the hardware for a wire free mixed VR experience that it intends to open-source. Qualcomm is doing it with the VR820, an all-in-one (AIO) head mounted display (HMD) reference design, and supporting the Snapdragon VR SDK to enable both hardware and supporting software. Based on the Snapdragon 820 mobile processor, several manufacturers including Coocaa, Focalmax, Pico and Whaley have launched VR products using the platform.
By accelerating development, reducing costs, and solving key technical challenges, platforms are a big part in the development of AR/VR and its transition to a mobile experience. The market still has some way to go but emerging products such as ODG’s small, highly portable R-8 and R-9 AR/VR glasses with Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, 6DOF and a 50-degree field of view (40 degrees in the R-8) show the potential. There is still room for improvement with all VR/AR products and a need for high quality content, but we are seeing clear progress and the first commercial indications that mobile VR doesn’t imply a compromise in performance. VR and AR are going mobile.
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.