Author(s): Leo Gebbie
Having spent some time over the past few months playing with the latest virtual reality (VR) headsets, I think we're at a defining moment for the future of these devices. I've been lucky enough to go hands-on with devices ranging from smartphone-powered headsets right up to top-of-the-range PC-powered rigs. Each of these devices has its strengths, but each one also leaves you a little frustrated in one way or another. However, all this may be about to change with the advent of new standalone VR headsets, and I think they just might be the devices that take VR to a whole new level.
Standalone VR headsets don't need to be plugged into a PC or smartphone for use. For a long time, they were largely limited to smartphone-powered devices like Samsung's Gear VR, which allow you to dock a compatible phone into a plastic headset and engage in 360-degree content such as games, videos, and other experiences.
More recently, we've started to see truly standalone products that don't need a smartphone with more affordable prices. The Oculus Go, priced at $199, is the best-known example of these and is designed to bring VR to the mass market. As outlined in our recent virtual and augmented reality forecast, we expect standalone headsets to become the biggest segment of the VR devices market, with 6.9 million units shipping in 2019.
I've spent some time with both the Gear VR and Oculus Go, and they're a great way to sample virtual worlds and 360-degree video. However, their main limitations stem from the fact they operate with three degrees of freedom (3DoF). This means that the headsets can track movement on users' heads, allowing them to look around a 360-degree environment — but wearers are unable to move around within that environment. As a result, users of 3DoF headsets are largely just observers in a VR experience, with limited point-and-click interaction. This leaves content feeling a little shallow; games usually feel basic and often a little bit gimmicky.
This isn't to say the headsets aren't good — they're simply suited to certain uses. They provide the easiest way to access 360-degree content at a low price. Devices with 3DoF are also likely to have certain applications when remaining static is actually useful; for example, it is an ideal form of VR for education, as a class of pupils all could engage in the same experience without the need to move around.
Still, experiences with six degrees of freedom (6DoF) tend to be far more engaging, as users are free to move around in a virtual world and engage more fully with that world. So far, the headsets dominating this space have been PlayStation VR, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and their successors, the Rift S and Vive Pro. These devices allow for a far greater range of movement in VR, including the ability to walk around a "play area" and engage with more of the virtual world. This is best demonstrated in games such as Beat Saber and The Climb. These games are truly immersive experiences, and in my opinion couldn't really be played on any other platform with the same level of enjoyment.
Until now, the limitation of 6DoF devices has been their need to tether to a powerful console or PC, adding a potentially expensive second purchase for many people, and requiring a cable between the two. They also require lengthy first-time set-ups.
Excitingly, we're now seeing the release of new headsets that take the power of tethered headsets and turn it into a standalone experience. I've been lucky enough to spend some time with the Oculus Quest recently, and this really feels as though it could be the device that proves to be a tipping point for the VR market.
The Oculus Quest is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 chipset and has seen a jump in screen resolution over the original Oculus Rift. These improvements demonstrate the pace of development in VR technology, especially in standalone devices, and they result in a headset with astounding performance.
The entire user experience is so much simpler than tethered headsets, and high-quality VR games work seamlessly. I was blown away by the Star Wars: Vader Immortal game; it felt like I was the main character in a Star Wars adventure, standing only inches from Darth Vader and wielding the famous lightsaber. I can see this area exploding in popularity as more franchises build VR experiences. Given the Oculus Quest's keen price of $399, and the quality of the experience, it's not hard to imagine this being a popular device on Christmas lists this year.
I'm looking forward to further development in VR hardware. At CCS Insight we've already discussed our expectations for the future, especially in terms of standalone devices that can wirelessly tether to a host device for additional horsepower when needed. This could unlock even better performance in more-compact headset designs and result in more-affordable devices for consumers.
My one note of caution is on VR content. Hardware is rapidly developing, but software can seem to lag a little, with few genuine success stories on VR platforms. Gaming has dominated the content space so far, but VR needs to move beyond this if it's going to appeal to a wider audience. Unlocking the potential of 360-degree video, experiences, events and social networking is a critical piece of the jigsaw; if developers can get this right, VR has a chance to become a truly mass-market technology.
VR feels like it's been the next big thing for some time now. However, with the Oculus Quest, and other forthcoming standalone 6DoF devices, it feels as though the VR platform is all starting to click together. At CCS Insight, we think that these devices will one day be looked back on as the seminal moment in VR development. Right now, it's an exciting time for VR users, and if quality content continues to appear, I'm expecting a real surge in their popularity. In fact, the next big thing might finally be here.