Author(s): Geoff Blaber
CCS Insight has previously noted that virtual reality (VR) is going mobile. The benefits of a mobile VR experience in terms of form factor, immersion, utility and meeting consumer expectations are clear but not without challenges. Technical hurdles, content and market readiness are all obstacles the industry needs to overcome.
The last week in February was host to both Mobile World Congress and GDC 2017. It would be misleading to suggest that VR dominated either event. Nonetheless, it was a prominent theme and there was a palpable sense of hope for the technology and what it can deliver despite its early phase of development. Significant progress is being made even if VR has yet to reach the mass market (see Mobile World Congress and GDC 2017: VR and AR).
Samsung's Gear VR headset has already sold 5 million units and during a presentation at GDC, Oculus claimed high engagement levels with device owners using the headset at least twice a week — engagement is even higher among gamers. This is impressive considering the experience involves greater friction when compared with simply picking up a smartphone. The announcement that Samsung will launch a third-generation Gear VR is a reassuring sign of both companies' ongoing commitment given that they were the first to define mobile VR.
Google's Daydream platform is also seeing steady progress. The company's Cardboard devices built a strong foundation for Daydream selling over 10 million units, and the emergence of new devices and content partners — most recently Sky in the UK — are strong indications that Google's VR ecosystem is coming together. Expect a lot more news at Google I/O in May 2017.
But despite the size of both the commitment and distribution platforms of companies in Western markets, such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft, VR activity is arguably most intensive in China. The West may have defined the birth of the smartphone, at least in terms of design, but it's the East that is leading the way in virtual and augmented reality in the context of product commercialization and consumer adoption.
Recent announcements from Qualcomm clearly pinpoint this activity, with the intention of fostering and accelerating innovation. An update to its VR development kit provides developers with a head-mounted display (HMD), powered by a Snapdragon 835 processor, with features including six degrees of freedom and eye tracking to enable functionality such as foveated rendering for efficient use of bandwidth. The update allows developers to maximize the capability of the hardware and start to deliver immersive apps that exploit the potential of mobile VR.
However, VR is faced with the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. App developers won't get on board until a sufficient variety and quality of hardware is available, but market demand is limited for manufacturers without applications and content. Any approach has to address both sides of the coin. Qualcomm is building on its HMD reference design with a program that echoes its approach with smartphones. Manufacturers can either build products directly from a reference design or work with an approved original design manufacturer to choose components and create their devices. Leap Motion is also making its hand-tracking capability available as part of the program.
All these moves represent promising developments that reiterate why mobile VR will succeed. It exploits the scale and diversity of the mobile value chain from components through to manufacturers, developers and distributors. Although it's true that VR hardware and accessories are at risk of outpacing innovation in software and content, we expect that 2017 will also see the latter advance. Platform companies such as Google, Facebook and Tencent are investing extensively to deliver the same content experience in VR that people have come to expect from smartphones.
Fragmentation in VR is a challenge, but the industry is aware of this problem and can apply lessons learnt from smartphones to overcome it. WebVR and Khronos' OpenXR initiatives will take time but they are promising developments that will address the problem directly. VR is at the same point in time as smartphones at the dawn of the iPhone, but prior to the launch of the App Store in 2009, and we all know what happened next.
A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 27 March 2017 and can be viewed here.