Author(s): Geoff Blaber
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are not always considered examples of mobile-first technologies, but this is where they're 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. The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR headsets all offer admirable experiences but they're 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 a user being physically tethered to a box, constantly tripping over a cable or being rudely interrupted as a cord snaps their head back into reality will seem bizarre.
Delivering a Quality Experience
The biggest and simplest reason is the quality of the user 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 a user to freely explore the virtual environment. It also liberates uses for the technology and increases the total available market. There are only so many applications, 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 they're a minority.
By taking the experience wireless, it opens a broad spectrum of opportunity. Education and training become addressable segments 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 sectors such as construction, design, travel, medicine — the list goes on. Some of these applications may seem far-fetched, but technology will advance, content will rapidly expand, device designs will shrink and uses will proliferate.
This supports a major assumption: that VR and AR will ultimately converge. Although today they are viewed as separate, the two functions will come together with the headset enabling switching between VR, AR and mixed reality features. This will become an inherently mobile experience in terms of hardware — smaller, lighter devices —, the mode of operation and the type of content that is created or consumed. In the same way that smartphones have 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 headset designs and locally stored content but once truly mobile, they will create and need massive amounts of data. Capturing the world around them in high resolution, sharing to the cloud and streaming in ultra-high definition will all become a reality. Smartphones benefit from highly optimized chipsets with an integrated modem, cameras, Wi-Fi, sensor hubs and processors, and these elements will be equally important in VR and AR headsets. Probably more so.
This is why a platform approach to VR is emerging. It's critical that hardware, software and content are packaged appropriately to lower costs, encourage development, accelerate time to market and create an impact on the 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 hardware for a wire-free mixed VR experience that it intends to open-source. Qualcomm is also taking the platform approach with the VR820, a reference design for an all-in-one head-mounted display, and supporting the Snapdragon VR development kit 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 Qualcomm's platform.
By accelerating development, reducing costs, and solving major technical challenges, platforms play a big part in the development of VR and AR and their transition to a mobile experience. Emerging products such as ODG's small, highly portable R-8 and R-9 glasses with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, six degrees of freedom and a 50-degree field of view (40 degrees in the R-8) show potential. There's still room for improvement with all VR and AR products and a need for high-quality content, but we're seeing clear progress and the first commercial indications that mobile VR doesn't imply a compromise in performance. VR and AR are going mobile.
A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 24 January 2017 and can be viewed here.