It's time to check in on the virtual-reality market in its various hardware forms, both conceptually and with eyes-on impressions.
A bit more than a year ago, EDN published my analysis of the three main categories of virtual reality (VR) systems:
- computer- and game console-based VR
- smartphone-based VR, and
- standalone VR
This follow-on post has two primary objectives: to give a conceptual update on one of them, and to provide eyes-on impressions of another.
Smartphone-based virtual reality
This particular approach, as I wrote back in December 2018, involves “attaching a smartphone to the front of a head-mounted [VR] viewer.” Back then, I said, “I’m pretty optimistic about this particular VR approach long-term, simply because of its low cost of entry and because it leverages a platform (the smartphone) that you already own.” But, in fairness to myself, I also noted a few downsides to this particular VR approach, among them that, “While the smartphone is clipped into the HMD [head-mounted display], it can’t be used for anything else: no multitasking for you!”
Apparently, I should have given this particular shortcoming a bit more weight in the overall analysis, because less than a year later, in October 2019, Google shuttered its smartphone-based Daydream VR program, ending production of the Daydream View HMD in the process.
Why? Company spokesperson comments to the media included the following telling phrase:
Over time we noticed some clear limitations constraining smartphone VR from being a viable long-term solution. Most notably, asking people to put their phone in a headset and lose access to the apps they use throughout the day causes immense friction.
The Google Pixels that accompanied the Daydream View HMDs I’d acquired in mid-2017 are now retired in favor of Pixel 3a successors, victims of discontinued operating system support and degraded batteries (more on that in a future post). And as for the Pixel XL I bought my wife later that same year, she gave up on Android and returned to the Apple iOS ecosystem one year later. The Pixel XL, along with one of the Daydream View HMDs, is now in the Christmas-present possession of my game-playing 12-year-old nephew, who will hopefully get at least another year or few out of it. For as the Google spokesperson also said last October:
While we are no longer selling Daydream View or supporting Daydream on Pixel 4, the Daydream app and store will remain available for existing users.
Standalone virtual reality
The case study example of this particular product category, then (and still) in my possession, is the Oculus (now owned by Facebook, need I remind you) Go, the 64GB variant of which I’d purchased at introduction in May 2018 for around $200 (deals for both it and the 32GB model are still regularly seen, thanks to periodic promotions). Here again are a few unboxing photos I shot of it and its companion Bluetooth wireless controller at the time:
And here are a couple of “stock” shots of the Oculus Go in action on models’ heads (no, you are not going to see an image of one on my noggin!):
Released nearly two years ago, the Oculus Go’s value-for-the-money frankly still amazes me, even at its $199-or-$249 MSRP. Look at what you get for the price:
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 SoC, with an Adreno 530 graphics subsystem
- A 5.5″ 72 Hz RGB-stripe LCD with a resolution of 2560×1440 (1280×1440 per eye)
- 3 GBytes LPDDR4 SDRAM
- 32 or 64 GBytes of NAND flash memory
- Micro-USB, Bluetooth, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity
- 3DOF (non-positional) tracking sensor fusion
- Integrated stereo speakers, plus a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack
Sounds an awful lot like a cellular modem-less smartphone, doesn’t it? I guess if you don’t want to leverage the phone you already own, an incremental couple of Franklins isn’t a bad alternative. Note that the built-in display resolution is actually higher than that of the first-generation Oculus Rift (and the equal of the Oculus Rift S successor), albeit slightly below that of the dual-OLED Oculus Quest. The Oculus Go’s image quality is quite acceptable to me, with only a slight amount of “screen door effect” distortion that’s particularly a non-issue when watching modest-resolution video (more on that in a minute). I can use the HMD both with my bifocal contact lenses (in spite of my presbyopia, which typically still necessitates reading glasses) and (with the included adapter) bifocal glasses. And I’ve never experienced even a bit of nausea when using it.
As I’ve admitted plenty of times before, I’m not a gamer, so I’m not going to bother even attempting to review this particular aspect of the Oculus Go experience. I’ve perused a number of evaluations written by others, however, and the reviewers seem pretty impressed with the HMD’s capabilities, with the qualifier that high-end games still require the more abundant processing and memory available with a tethered computer in conjunction with the Oculus Rift “big brother.” My primary usage, at least so far, has actually turned out to be in watching movies and other video content. What is commonly referred to as “VR video” isn’t actually “virtual” at all; instead a 180° or 360° camera (or cluster of cameras pointing in different directions) is used to capture spherical video content, which the HMD then plays back.
Video playback apps bundled with the Oculus Go or downloadable from the Go Store include:
- Oculus TV
- Oculus Video
- Disney Movies VR
- National Geographic VR
- YouTube VR
- SKYBOX VR Video Player
Viewing spherical video is quite cool, although the “roller coaster ride” experience gets a bit predictable after a few viewings. The HMD attempts to ascertain when you’re looking straight ahead; manual recalibration for both it and the companion controller is always available if either or both guesses wrong. And then, as you rotate your head around, the HMD’s integrated accelerator, gyroscope, and magnetometer operate in symphony to reorient the portion of the spherical video in front of you to match.
What I’d like to focus on, however, is conventional video playback, in particular using the last three apps on the above list. Via the SKYBOX VR Video Player, you can always watch video files (in app-compatible formats) that you’ve previously transferred to the HDM; DVD or Blu-ray material you’ve “ripped” from discs you own, for example, or content you’ve downloaded over Bittorrent (if you’re gutsy enough to roll the dice here). And both Hulu and Netflix material can be reliably (at least in my personal testing so far) streamed over Wi-Fi after you’ve logged in to your account, with enough battery life for at least one movie viewing.
I don’t know about you, but it always irritates me when I’m trying to watch a movie on my laptop or tablet in a public venue (airport/airplane, train, etc.) and the person next to me also keeps staring at the screen, even if I’ve got headphones on and they therefore can’t even hear the audio track. Using an Oculus Go in conjunction with that same set of headphones to watch a movie obviates such a scenario, admittedly at the tradeoff of making you look like a bit of a dork. And the Oculus Go’s built-in web browser even enables you to connect to Wi-Fi networks that require you to enter login credentials such as your hotel room number and last name.
But what if Wi-Fi isn’t available when you want to watch Hulu or Netflix content? Here’s the crux of my minor beef with the current Oculus Go situation, one that’s seemingly easily solvable if Facebook just sits down and negotiates with the service providers. The standard Android apps for both Hulu and Netflix allow for pre-download of a portion of the services’ libraries for subsequent offline viewing. But even though I’ve got 64 GBytes of storage ready and waiting in the HMD, the native apps available for the Android-based Oculus Go don’t support downloads, only streaming (although side-loading of the conventional Android apps, admittedly a consumer-unfriendly workaround, supposedly works, but I haven’t tried this yet).
I’m curious what the core issue is here. Have Hulu and Netflix just not gotten around to adding offline viewing support on the Oculus Go yet? Or do they (and/or their content provider partners) feel that the Oculus Go is an insufficiently secure platform to allow video file storage on it? With this one enhancement, the HDM would be an even better value than it already is. Hulu, Netflix, and Facebook, the ball’s in your court! Sound off, readers, with your thoughts in the comments!
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.