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Here are the tech trends shaping the VR industry

Bob Cooney with HTC's new Vive XR Elite
Bob sporting the XR Elite

HTC VIVE XR Elite: Hands-on Review

In February of this year, I was invited to speak about why the metaverse is inevitable at the launch of the VIVE XR Elite headset in Australia by HTC. During the event, I used their new state-of- the-art mixed reality headset in a series of experiences testing out the pass-through video, mixed reality capabilities,
and customization features.

The XR Elite is the new flagship of the VIVE lineup. It’s squarely aimed at the prosumer market.It seems like HTC took the customization of their VIVE Cosmos, added the portability and comfort of the VIVE Flow, and then built in the advanced VR features of the VIVE Focus 3.

The XR Elite is tiny compared to almost any other VR headset. It weighs only 625 grams (22 ounces) with the battery. The size and weight reduction come partly from the new pancake lens setup, ditching the Fresnel lenses of the Focus 3. It’s the first headset I can imagine wearing for hours without noticing.

Helping offset the drop in resolution, the XR Elite has fully adjustable diopter settings. You can dial each eye between 0 and -6, which covers 90% of the people who wear glasses. This makes the picture crystal clear for the 75% of adults who wear glasses.

HTC moved the speakers closer to the ears on the XR Elite, helping overcome one of the biggest complaints of the Focus 3. Bass doesn’t travel well, so having the speakers close increases the audio quality dramatically.

The placement of the tracking cameras has evolved as well. The XR Elite has a wider tracking field of view, so your hands stay in view even with more extreme movements. It also includes a 3D depth sensor, which allows for the accurate placement of virtual objects in the room while using mixed reality.

The depth sensor works in conjunction with the single video pass-through camera to create the illusion of depth. The depth sensor firmware wasn’t working in my prototype, so the pass- through video was warped. My hand looked enormous in front of my face, something that the depth sensor would somehow magically adjust.

One of the strengths of the Focus 3 is the swappable battery pack behind a magnetic head cushion. The XR Elite adds hot- swapping to the mix, but the entire back of the headset needs to be replaced. No word yet on charging peripherals or how much an extra battery/ head strap costs. The face gasket on the XR Elite is cloth, unlike the polyurethane one on the Focus 3.

No more showbox on your face

The XR Elite can plug into a computer and run off USB 3 or wireless via Wi-Fi 6E streaming. By removing the battery pack and running the headset off a laptop, you can wear the HMD like a pair of glasses, reducing the weight to 240 grams (just 8.5 ounces). This does change the balance of the headset. I found it comfier, with the battery providing a counterweight on the back of the headset.

Vive XR Elite versus Focus 3

So, is the VIVE XR Elite a competitor to the Focus 3 for LBE? Not as it currently ships.

The Focus 3 has a magnesium alloy chassis, making it the most durable headset we have seen. The easily swappable and hygienic face gasket, the removable batteries with charging docks, and the fantastic 5K 120° field of view optics make it the standout choice for now.

But if you’re considering a VR headset for home or office use, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the XR Elite. I will be trading up from my Meta Quest Pro any day now.

The Future is Cloudy, and That’s Good for VR

Remember when “The Cloud” was the biggest buzzword in tech? It started in 2006. Amazon was hyping its web-based storage solutions. Amazon launched its Simple Storage Service or S3, and soon every website seemed to be hosted by Amazon. A few years later, they launched Elastic Cloud Compute, or EC2, offering scalable computing power. Companies no longer needed racks of servers. They could spin up virtual servers on Amazon as they needed them.

Now the services you take for granted are all run in the cloud. Netflix, Zoom, Salesforce, and probably every other app you use runs on cloud computing from either Amazon, Google, or Microsoft (Azure).

Cloud gaming services are now widespread. Microsoft offers Xbox cloud gaming to its Game Pass Ultimate Subscribers. NVIDIA offers GeForce NOW, and Sony has PlayStation Now. Gamers no longer even need to own a console to play games in the highest resolutions. They can play hundreds of high-end console titles on a browser on a PC or mobile device.

Cloud gaming uses a technology called pixel streaming. The video that used to be rendered on the console or PC is rendered on a cloud server. Controllers’ input is sent to the cloud, and the resulting images are streamed to the browser. This enables lightweight, inexpensive, low-power devices to become high-end gaming consoles.

The only downside to pixel streaming is latency. Millisecond latency is required in competitive multiplayer games like Call of Duty. Depending on the internet connection, cloud gaming can have latency measured in the tens or hundreds of milliseconds. But that’s set to change.

5G

Millimeter wave 5G technology promises sub-10 millisecond latency. The 5G most of us have on our phones isn’t 5G. It’s another marketing gimmick from the telcos to get us to upgrade. Millimeter wave 5G is the real deal: gigabit speeds and almost no latency.

Millimeter wave requires a line of site, however. It uses high frequencies, which don’t travel as far as current low-frequency 4G or LTE. So it’s primarily used where many people are in concentrated spaces, like sports stadiums.

Forecasts from the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona suggest investment in new mmWave 5G cells is ramping up, as is the use of active repeaters, which amplify the signals. The consumer driver for this investment is the connected home. We need more bandwidth as all our in-home tech requires internet connections.

Reign Core S2 from G Reigns

The other application of 5G we are seeing is private 5G networks. Businesses can install their own 5G core, which is like an entire telco in a box. Soon, an FEC could install a device like the Reign Core S2, from HTC subsidiary G Reigns. It creates a private 5G network that covers 100K square feet, using whatever existing internet connection there is for backhaul. The Reign Core S2 can automatically detect thousands of XR endpoints, like VR headsets. Imagine one local 5G network at an FEC connecting automatically to hundreds of headsets and arcade games—no more cabling, Wi-Fi hotspots, or IT nightmares. A 5G private network, hooked up to a cloud gaming infrastructure, would enable hundreds (or more) of lightweight, inexpensive, and long-lasting headsets to offer customers pixel-streamed, amazing-quality immersive experiences.

It took 15 years for “The Cloud” to go from launch to ubiquity. Keep that in mind when thinking about VR, and the metaverse timelines as the pace of evolution continues to increase.

This technology is all available today. It just requires solution providers to get creative and operators to be brave. As William Gibson said in his book Neuromancer, “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed”.

VR Needs a Boost: Could Apple Provide It?

The big news for virtual reality in 2022 was that headset sales were generally flat. According to NPD Group, sales of VR headsets in the US declined 2% from 2021 to $1.1 billion. But the good news is that they predict shipments to grow 31% in 2023.

Meta just reported they’d sold 20 million total headsets. That’s more than Xbox Series X and S and more than Nintendo GameCube sold in its lifespan. They also noted that the newer users are not as “into it”, using the headsets less than the early adopters.

The Quest Pro, released at US$1500 in October, has already slashed its price to $999. And Meta has already talked up their forthcoming Quest 3. It promises to be smaller and lighter, employing the same pancake lenses as the Quest Pro and color pass-through for mixed reality experiences. There’s been no word on a release date yet.

While the PlayStation 5 is a blockbuster, having sold 30 million units already and gaining momentum, the momentum for their new VR headset isn’t great. Sony just released the PSVR 2, a significant upgrade to their freshman offering. It’s technologically superior with eye tracking, foveated rendering (see my Glossary of VR Terms in Edition 1), haptic feedback in the headset, 4K OLED displays for crisp, vibrant visuals, and inside-out tracking. It still requires a cable connection, however. And at a US$550 price tag on top of the $500 PS5, it’s a pricey game peripheral. Bloomberg reported that Sony slashed their initial year sales forecast in half to one million units.

HTC is pushing back into the consumer market with the VIVE XR Elite headset. See the full hands-on review in another above.

There continue to be new headsets announced by bit players. Lenovo unveiled the ThinkReality VRX enterprise headset at CES. PIMAX keeps cranking out new headsets, with the Portal and Crystal promised this year. The Lynx R1 mixed reality headset is finally shipping in 2023. And Somnium Space announced their VR1, which sports some of the best specs promised yet.
No date was announced.

Image credit: Pranav – stock.abode.com

But if you ask anyone in the VR business what they’re waiting for, they will tell you the forthcoming Apple headset. It’s no longer just rumored; so many data points signal a release that most people expect it this year. Apple is known for waiting until the tech is perfect and a market size of hundreds of billions of dollars is available.

It’s suggested that it will cost close to $3000 and come with an external tethered battery pack. It will feature mixed reality, a custom system on a chip based on their M-class processors, and, if history is any indicator, a breakthrough in user experience.

mage credit: AntionioDeRosa Design

If anything, Apple will teach the rest of the industry how people should interact with spatial computing environments and build demand for 3D computing globally. Others will indeed copy them, which will benefit the market.

Samsung, who notoriously copied the iPhone (and was forced to pay Apple $539 million), recently announced they’re re-entering the VR market with a forthcoming headset in a partnership with Qualcomm. No specifics were provided on the Samsung device, probably because they’re waiting to see what Apple does so they can copy them again (sorry, but I could not resist). Apple will be the only headset manufacturer not using Qualcomm’s XR system on a chip, which powers Meta’s Quest, and almost every other XR device on the market.

2023 is shaping up to be a big year for VR headsets. They’re getting better all the time. Will fans spend $3000 on an Apple headset? And if they do, how will a $400 Quest 3 compare? Most importantly, will the content be compelling enough to make consumers care? Stay tuned.

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