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Choosing the Right Path: Navigating the Waters Between PC-Based and All-In-One Systems for Your DIY Free-Roam VR Experience

This post is a section of the Do It Yourself Free Roam article in Bob Cooney’s VR Arcade Game Buyer’s guide (download full guide here). Links to the other sections of the article are at the end of this post.

PC VS ALL-IN-ONE

The advent of all-in-one headsets like the Meta (formerly Oculus) Quest has made VR accessible to anyone. The Quest 2, released in October 2020, changed the VR landscape. At only $299 for the entry level model, it replaced thousands of dollars’ worth of complex gear needed to experience VR. Up until then, you needed a high-end PC with a powerful graphics card to power an HTC VIVE headset and controllers, costing $3–5K per set up.

The upside of PC-based VR is the graphics are significantly better. Millions of polygons are required to make up a rich, 3D immersive world. And a powerful PC can make each one of those polygons richer. All-in-one headsets must manage heat, battery life, and cost; the graphics are one of the things that suffer.

All-in-one headsets cannot keep up with the graphic fidelity of PCs and consoles

But graphics are not as important as people think when it comes to location-based virtual reality.

A great VR experience is so immersive that even with a low polygon environment, players lose themselves in the game play. The economics and operational complexity of PCVR might not be worth the higher graphic fidelity for many operators. However, most home VR is all-in-one with the Quest leading the market by a wide margin. If you’re going to charge people to play VR, offering a better gaming experience than they can get at home is a more defensible business, and will help prevent price erosion.

Following the Quest 2 success two other headset manufacturers entered the market with solid all-in-one headsets. Pico introduced the Neo 3 in May 2021, followed shortly after by the HTC VIVE Focus 3. Pico has since released the Pico 4, and now Meta just announced the Quest 3. The landscape is littered with all-in-one choices at price points from $250 to $1300.

IDC shows a dip in Quest market share after PSVR 2 launched, but before Quest 3 hit the market

There are significant differences between the three offerings from Meta, Pico and HTC, and operators need to understand what they’re getting in to with each. The Meta Quest is primarily a consumer headset. It’s by far the least expensive option, as Meta subsidizes the headset’s cost through sales of games to consumers, similar to Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox. But because it’s a consumer product, the software has severe limitations that will impact a retail entertainment operation.

THE PROBLEM WITH QUEST

Since VR is such an experimental technology, software advances come fast and furious. Meta is spending more than US$10 billion a year on research and development for their VR business to make the tech more user friendly. This means they push software to their headsets through over the air (OTA) updates. As soon as a Quest connects to the internet, it starts to download any available updates. As of the date of this article, there’s no reliable way to turn this “feature” off.

While this is arguably good for consumers, who always get the latest features and bug fixes, it’s a problem for commercial deployments. Meta doesn’t generally give advance notice to their third-party developers letting them test new updates. This means that sometimes an update will break a certain piece of software, which can lead to instability, crashes, or even a complete failure of the system until the developer has time to develop, test, and deploy an update. Which could take weeks.

Meta’s upcoming mobile device management system promises more business friendly features and licensing

As of this writing, Meta is developing a new Quest for Business service that might address these and other issues. Their previous business program, Oculus for Business, forbid arcades as a use before they discontinued the program. Officials at Meta have assured me their new licensing program will be more arcadefriendly. Since Meta subsidizes the costs of their hardware with ongoing fees from their Quest App Store, they’re instituting an annual license fee that will be in the hundreds of dollars per year.

The Meta for Business program will have advanced features like mobile device management (MDM), user and content management, and better support levels. It’s currently in Beta and will likely be officially announced in October 2023. Currently the VR arcade community is dubious about Meta for Business based on past experience. Make sure to sign up for insights and updates at thevrcollective.com for the latest on Meta’s business program.

VIVE TAKES THE LEAD

HTC basically invented the VR arcade business. In an attempt to spur consumer interest in VR they created VIVEPORT Arcade to help arcade owners license content from game developers. It led to a cottage industry of VR arcades around the world running VIVE headsets connected to gaming PCs. These were “room-scale” experiences where customers were limited to a 10′ x 10′ square in which to play. Some games enabled computers to connect to one another for multiplayer, but players were still segregated to their own physical space.

The VIVE series, ranging from the original (OG) to the Pro 2, were prosumer devices. They were not designed for rigorous use at commercial arcades. HTC gathered requirements from arcade owners for their next headset, one that fitted the needs of the market. That headset, the VIVE Focus 3, launched in 2021.

In the ensuing two years, the Focus 3 has become the de facto standard for free-roam solution providers. Almost every platform I know has either already endorsed it or is in the process of doing so. It features replaceable batteries, removable face pads, a magnesium alloy frame, and the best resolution and field of view of all the major headsets. The only limitation is audio, which sometimes is not loud enough in a noisy environment.

VIVE’s location-based software suite is full of features specifically designed to make life for arcade operators and developers easier

HTC has also created software for Focus 3 to support the location-based VR market. Its location-based software suite handles device management, multiple tracking modes, free-roam map configuration, and a host of other features specifically designed for arcades. It’s by far the most comprehensive software solution for our market.

The Focus 3 is the most expensive of the headsets, coming in at over $1200, plus annual license fees. Operators are paying for reliability, stability, and ease of use for staff. Focus 3 is the best headset for free-roam VR if you have the budget.

PICO IN THE MIDDLE

Pico has always focused on the B2B market for VR headsets. They built a solid business-friendly reputation offering custom firmware for companies building custom solutions. Then in August of 2021 they were acquired by ByteDance, the owners of TikTok and one of the largest technology companies in the world. Since then, they’ve also begun positioning their headsets in the consumer market. But due to political sensibilities they’ve held off advertising in the US, so you might not be familiar with them.

The Pico 4 Enterprise is a great high-end headset. It’s lightweight, durable, and features full color, low latency pass-through video. It also is the only headset that comes standard with eye and face tracking (until the Apple Vision Pro launches). The Pico 4 Enterprise is priced between the Quest 3 and Focus 3 at around $US800.

Pico just introduced a new mid-tier version of the Pico 3.

They dropped the eye tracking along with the price. It’s now price competitive with the Meta Quest 3, but because of Pico’s commercial and enterprise focus, it comes with none of the pain and suffering of the Meta lineup.

HTC VIVE Focus 3 captured a lot of market share of LBVR solution providers with their first mover advantage. Pico has some catching up to do but with their new lineup of feature-rich and cost-competitive headsets, I expect them to be making noise in the market in 2024.

*Estimated price based at time of publication based on MSRP and current exchange rates

Other sections of this article you may be interested in

  1. Launchers and Content
  2. The Arena
  3. Do it Yourself Free-roam VR
  4. Computers and Networking Equipment

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