At CES, Everyone Is Still Hunting for VR’s Killer App
With a smile on his face, Lenovo’s Matt Bereda opened an unmarked white box and pulled out what appeared to be another smartphone-reliant virtual reality headset. It looked like a cleaner version of Samsung’s Gear VR, with a comfier strap and two large cameras dotting the shimmering black face, like a pair of blank, staring eyes. Except unlike all those mobile headsets and Google Cardboard look-a-likes, Lenovo’s Mirage Solo headset wasn’t beholden to a smartphone. And it didn’t require an expensive PC either. It worked on its own, with all the necessary components inside the eyepiece.
With the aid of a small one-handed touch controller, I was transported inside my own personal holodeck of sorts, built to look like the world of Blade Runner 2049. But instead of sitting on a chair, Bereda had me stand up and encouraged me to look around. As I did, I realized why. The Mirage Solo offers a more robust, freeing experience than any mobile VR headset I’ve ever used. It lets you duck down, dodge, and move back and forth without losing your place in the game world. This is what VR gamers refer to as six degrees of freedom—the ability to move freely and peek around corners within a virtual environment. The headset essentially creates a miniature version of the room-scale VR that HTC’s high-end Vive headset has made famous, even without the PC-grade guts to match.
Lenovo’s new Mirage Solo, which debuted at CES 2018, is one of a growing breed of new standalone VR headsets. It works with Google’s Daydream platform, and joins others like the Oculus Go, Xiaomi Mi VR Standalone, and Pico Neo, which all operate on their own, sans any extra doo-dads or bulky equipment, thanks to smartphone-level Qualcomm Snapdragon processors.
These new untethered headsets are just one of the ways companies are trying to draw some fresh excitement out of a public that has spent two years shrugging its collective shoulders at VR. The launches of the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and mobile headsets like the Gear VR were heavily hyped, but these new computing devices have failed to develop momentum in the mainstream market. Even Sony, with its newer PSVR headset, has struggled to sell 2 million units to the 70 million owners of the compatible PS4 console in the last year. And in its effort to push its exclusive Gear VR goggles, Samsung gave away perhaps millions of units by bundling a shiny new headset with new Galaxy phones.
“I call it drawerware,” says GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart about the Gear VR and other early VR headsets. “It gets put in the back of a drawer … I have a Vive and PlayStation VR. The experiences are fascinating, but they are not very sticky. Right now, VR is really searching for a killer app.” He used the Nintendo Switch as a prime example. It was a similar console to Nintendo’s Wii U, which bombed. But the Switch had better hardware, a stronger use case, and most importantly two immensely popular games in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey.
Though there are a lot of fascinating and fun games and apps for VR, the format still lacks that elusive title that can move millions of systems at retail. There is no Halo for VR like there was for the Xbox, or killer software, like Microsoft Office, that helped sell PCs, according to Greengart.
Samsung’s own efforts to market the Gear VR at CES this year illustrate his point. Instead of showing off Gear VR experiences you can have in the home, Samsung had an entire zone where it strapped Gear VR-wearing attendees to chairs that flipped them upside down and jerked them every which way. Fun, yes—but the Gear VR you buy at home doesn’t come with a kinetic gyro seat. The gimmicky demos illustrated how underwhelming the standard mobile VR experience is right now.
“There is a mismatch between what the hype is and the reality of the devices and the tech [on the market],” says Gartner research VP Brian Blau. “I don’t think there’s anyone to blame for that. The hype has been around for as long as I’ve been doing it, but it’s disappointing.” Blau is hopeful that, despite some underwhelming initial years, continued investments by companies like HTC will help re-align expectations and help VR gain in popularity.
Despite the slow start, HTC is still all-in on PC-based VR. It plans to keep its feet firmly planted in the PC VR space where it began. At its CES press conference, the company revealed the Vive Pro, a souped up, more expensive, more intense version of its standard Vive headset with better headphones, a larger (up to 1,070 square feet) virtual playground, and clearer visuals. It’s a feature list made to please hardcore fans. You can even plug a new whale tail of a gadget onto the back, making it wireless, and eliminating the big cord that tethered you to a PC and often threatened to trip you up—a top complaint of VR early adopters and one of the biggest improvements to the platform.
Instead of changing its approach, HTC is trying to steer the gaming and app industries toward its version of the future. The company is starting by making virtual content more accessible and easier to sample with its new Viveport virtual store. HTC is offering full VR demos of apps, and is experimenting with new business models like a $6 monthly subscription that gives you a rotating list of five VR games and experiences to try. The hope is increased visibility will spur more PC developers to build for VR first, increasing the number of fully fleshed-out games on the Vive platform. Currently, there are about 2,000 titles.
HTC’s Vive General Manager Dan O’Brien especially hopes to see more multiplayer experiences with social interactions in the store. “I think it will drive more and more adoption,” he says.
Blood and Sweat
Though you can bicker about whether the Vive will ever catch on with the masses, HTC’s booth at CES this year had plenty of evidence that businesses are throwing money into the platform. The space had experiences to help educate budding surgeons, and racing demos so robust that they’re used to train Formula 1 drivers. I even learned how to operate a Raymond forklift (though I don’t think they’ll be hiring me anytime soon). UPS is just one of many companies producing Vive experiences to train employees how to use expensive or complex equipment—one of VR’s stronger applications, though only accessible to companies with pockets deep enough to hire game developers.
One of the most interesting VR demos at CES was by Black Box, a startup that uses the HTC Vive to deliver gamified workouts. It combines the headset with a completely custom full-body resistance machine. You may go in expecting a VR sequel to the cheeky and tame Wii Fit, but the workout is intense and fun. The demo has you pull on Bowflex-like resistance straps to do bench presses while standing up. The better you bench, the faster you can shoot fireballs at your nemesis, a giant flying dragon. But with each bench, the resistance increases ever so slightly. I slayed the beast, but it left my arms burning. Black Box hopes to open its own gym in San Francisco and partner with existing gym chains to start setting up workout boxes across the country.
Measured in Degrees
Games and crazy workout programs are fun and all, but the next big killer VR experience may also be one you shoot yourself. 360 degree cameras, which were made for people to film VR content for themselves, have largely been a bust. But a new type of camera is swooping in to take its place. Lenovo’s Mirage Camera VR180 is made to work with that brand new standalone VR headset I talked about earlier. Instead of capturing spherical images, it has two 13-megapixel cameras that sit next to each other, like your own eyes, and shoot 180-degree images or video in stereoscopic 3-D.
Playing back some 180-degree content on the Mirage Solo headset produced one of the more pleasant, realistic experiences I’ve had watching 3-D video. 360-degree video may let you look all around you in every direction, but how often do you really need to see everything unrelated to the action in a scene?
Lenovo’s camera, and others like it, can livestream video too. If people begin to enjoy watching video in VR, other opportunities may open up. Companies like NextVR are continually refining and pushing the idea of watching sports in virtual reality. The day when you can easily, regularly buy a front row virtual ticket to a sports game or concert may not be that far off.
Give It Some Time
Nobody I spoke with—analysts, developers, or manufacturers—seems thrilled with how slowly VR has taken off, but few believe it’s down for the count. Interest rose notably in the last months of 2017 thanks to new Windows-friendly VR headsets entering the market. Price cuts on hardware and more robust titles like Star Trek Bridge Crew and Fallout 4 VR helped as well.
Investment in VR also shows few signs of slowing. There were a flurry of hardware announcements at CES from a number of players, including entirely new types of cameras and headsets designed around VR.
It’s hard not to see 2018 as a new chapter for the tech. VR may not have found its killer app yet. But its tentacles are slinking into so many places, everyone may end up using a VR headset at some point, whether they’re reliving their last surfing trip or learning how to run the new injection mold machine at the factory.