The VR race: Sony, Microsoft and Google
When it comes to emerging technologies, numerous tech companies appear to be eyeing virtual reality as a veritable New World ripe for plunder. The technology itself, of course, has existed for decades in one form or another; however, it's only been able to offer little more than novel functionality for consumer-facing markets.
But VR technology has evolved dramatically in recent years and the industry is now heating up and heading towards a virtual arms race.
Companies like Samsung, Sony, Google and Oculus are now all names associated with VR for gaming, social and mobile platforms - and they're all getting closer to bringing their products to market, but how fully realized will the products be?
Now that Microsoft has officially entered the playing field with the HoloLens - which focuses on augmented reality, or holograms - will AR finally secure a place under the spotlight too?
Let's take a look at how the virtual competition stack up so far.
Console gaming and VR: Sony's Project Morpheus
Virtual reality for console gamers may not get more in-depth than Sony's Project Morpheus. Reviewers commented that the product feels "more polished" than other products reportedly close to market, including the Oculus Rift. Specs are subject to change, but the current prototype runs a 1080p HD LCD display coupled with a 90-degree field of vision.
Like many of these devices in the development phase, the chief concern of reviewers is the weight of the headset. Wearing heavy VR headsets for longer than 15 minutes ruins the experience with the possibility of sore neck muscles and headaches.
Potential Competitive Edge: Sony has its own movie and television studios, a huge pile of cash and the PS4 to its credit. This means the company can supply much of its own content, and that it has a ready-made legion of loyal gamers at its disposal.
While Sony's initial aspirations for its VR headset seem to be a little more limited in scope than Facebook's, they are no less ambitious. When the project was announced last March (perhaps no coincidence that this was roughly the same time Facebook acquired Oculus), SCE President Shuhei Yoshida went on record to say, "Project Morpheus is the latest example of innovation from SCE, and we're looking forward to its continued development and the games that will be created as development kits get into the hands of content creators."
Promising reports from tech reviews also appear to indicate that there is little downside to the Morpheus at this stage in its development. It would seem that Sony currently is firing on all cylinders with its VR offering.
Lagging behind: Microsoft HoloLens
The seven year project has been under wraps for a long time though Microsoft is a late-comer to the VR/AR party with its latest offering: the HoloLens. The FOVE was previously on this list as the closest to virtual reality Microsoft ventured into, but it seems like augmented reality is where the company is headed now.
Not much else has been mentioned about the AR device in terms of pricing, but Microsoft is shooting for the same release date as Windows 10 - which is pretty ambitious considering it's been rumored as June 2015.
Aside from giving the HMD a fancy marketing spin - holographic projections opposed to augmented reality, Microsoft invented a third processor: a holographic processing unit or HPU. The HoloLens also includes a CPU and GPU as well. The HoloLens will be wireless, meaning users can move and interact untethered in the world around them as they simultaneously view and interact with projections. It also doesn't need a PC connection or phone to operate making the battery life questionable as it's unknown at this point.
A service called Holo Studios lets HoloLens users create 3D objects, moving and manipulating projected images in space. These creations can then be 3D printed.
Potential Competitive Edge: Like Sony, Microsoft's Xbox One allows for a very clear path to market. And if coupled with the console, this headset could make for an incredibly versatile device with a wide range of both gaming and non-gaming applications.
Our hands on with the HoloLens provided a pleasantly surprising experience - one that left skeptics in awe at how well the HMD actually works. It looks like it's past the prototype stage but it still probably has a long way to go. It doesn't seem likely it launch on time this year either considering the device seems pricey to manufacture.
The promising hardware and software coupled with the untethered aspect - if it doesn't suck up all the battery life - could make the HoloLens the biggest achievement for Microsoft in the augmented reality space.
DIY virtual reality: Google Cardboard
While many VR companies look to create all-inclusive headsets that use their own operating systems, tech giant Google has gone a decidedly different route. The company's developers wanted to create a way for people to enjoy virtual reality that didn't involve expensive equipment.
What they came up with is "I/O Cardboard" - a cut-and-fold VR headset that integrates with any Android phone and its corresponding Cardboard app. The strategy takes aim at democratizing the VR movement by putting headsets into the hands of consumers and developers who may otherwise consider products like these well out of their price range.
Cardboard is an open-source project, which leaves the development field wide open for whoever thinks they can improve on what Google has started. The full design specs to create a Cardboard prototype areavailable through Google for free.
Potential Competitive Edge: Google's R&D department is massive, and the company is well-known for its clever designs. It also isn't afraid to take risks in pricing to get its foot in the door against much higher-priced devices (just look at the Chromecast). Additionally, some industry observers have speculated that this could lead to some sort of VR integration with Google Glass further down the road.
It seems unlikely, though, that Cardboard will be able to compete directly with some of the more advanced and full-featured headsets in the market. Google also has a pretty significant graveyard of abandoned projects, and only time will tell if Cardboard's headstone will be among them.
Google teams up with LG: VR for G3
Little is known right now about VR for G3 except that Google software will be used to create a virtual reality environment. The design of VR for G3 is based on the blueprint for Google Cardboard. VR for G3 is also reminiscent of Samsung Gear VR since it uses an LG G3 phone to provide the visuals and sound.
It will also feature a special "neodymium ring magnet" that uses the phone's gyroscope to let users control it without touching the display.
Potential Competitive Edge: Pricing is key here. If Galaxy Note 4 owners are willing to buy the Gear VR, G3 owners may be drawn to the VR for G3. But phone-specific tethering could also kill both VR devices. It's also unclear how well the G3 VR works at this point but the power of Google may help the tech succeed.
Then again, the hype over Google Glass didn't do it any good since it's been shelved for the unforeseeable future.
The VR race: Oculus, Samsung and Razer
Sleek mobile integration: Samsung's Gear VR
Google may want to bring low-cost VR to the masses, but Samsung's Gear VR headset makes mobile virtual reality look sleek and seamless with its dedicated platform.
The big reveal for Gear VR happened during IFA 2014. The differentiating factor for this headset is the addition of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 - meaning Gear VR isn't a standalone device. In fact, there is a compartment at the front of the device for the handset.
Gear VR hasn't been a complete letdown and is in fact, pushing VR along quite nicely. It's helping spawn a mobile VR movement of sorts and with the help of Oculus, the tech seems to sound so far but devs need to step it up and provide more VR experiences.
Potential Competitive Edge: Like Sony, Samsung is capable of putting an enormous amount of funding behind this project. In recent years, the company's smartphones have garnered an enormous base of loyal followers to rival (or even surpass) Apple's iPhone. The Gear VR is also the first virtual reality device to make it to market - plus the first VR mobile device to boot - and it isn't completely horrible.
However, if Samsung chooses to limit Gear VR's compatibility exclusively to its Note 4 phones, it also could limit the market in terms of eligible consumers. Were the device to be compatible with a range of Android devices, though, Samsung would likely be able to expand its market.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvDb0C5pGYI
Industry leader: Facebook's Oculus Rift
If smartphone headsets are the toe-in-the-water version of VR, then Oculus is on an Olympic-diving-board level. Remember that duct-taped Oculus VR prototype with the bulging cable headdress from 2012? That was ages before Facebook bought the tech startup for $2 billion in March, 2014. The company's latest development kit for its flagship VR headset, the Oculus Rift (dubbed Crescent Bay by the dev team), is the industry's leader by a massive margin.
The Oculus Rift sports 1080p Samsung OLED screens (960 x 1080 in each eye) with a 110 degree field of vision and is paired with an infrared camera for depth tracking, along with 40 infrared emitters within the headset. It can be joined together with a Leap Motion controller for an intense sense of immersion. While reviewers said performance adjustments from the Crystal Cove prototype weren't staggering when it became DK2, they noted the frame rate was smoother.
Sadly, all the improvements in the world won't get this product to market any faster. Decision-makers at Oculus still haven't set a date for the headset's release, but that hasn't stopped them from taking pre-orders.
Potential Competitive Edge: The Oculus Rift has both a ton of hype and a boatload of name recognition working in its favor. Additionally, the pairing with Leap Motion opens a seemingly limitless world of applications when it comes to augmented reality.
The device's substantial backing by Facebook also ensures it's not going to be looking for financial support anytime soon. However, the longer it takes this product to reach consumers, the less these advantageous factors will matter as its competitors will only continue to gain ground by leaps and bounds.
For its own part, though, Facebook appears to be setting itself up for the long game when it comes to the Rift. When Oculus VR was acquired by Facebook last March, Mark Zuckerburg was quoted as saying, "Strategically we want to start building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile [...] There are not many things that are candidates to be the next major computing platform. [This acquisition is a] long-term bet on the future of computing."
Seeking standards: Razer OSVR
OSVR is Razer's answer to the Wild West of virtual reality. The company created a new platform called Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) in an attempt to unify those in the VR field, and people who want a piece of the VR pie. Essentially, the open platform is free and will allow third parties to design and build their own apps and hardware across any operating systems, including Windows, Android and Linux.
The OSVR is available limitedly to developers now, with public access arriving later in 2015
But that's not all from Razer. The company also announced a VR head mounted display its calling the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit. The HMD isn't close to being ready for consumers from our hands on during CES, but the prototype promises to be modular and like the software, completely open.
Potential Competitive Edge: If Google is trying DIY VR, Razer is taking it to another level. The company promises it will be modular and like the software, completely open. Design schematics for the hardware will even be available to print out on 3D printers. But from our hands on during CES, the HMD is far from ready for consumers and is still very much a prototype right now.
Will Razer at least win in terms of standardization? It seems like more companies are jumping on board the OSVR train. If hardware won't win, the software and platform may come out on top.
The verdict: Still unclear
So do any of these companies truly have a decisive advantage? To some extent, arguments could be made for most of these headsets. Oculus currently is considered the industry leader, but Sony's Morpheus appears to be poised as its strongest competition. And though it's not virtual reality, the Microsoft HoloLens is certainly garnering a lot of attention.
It's also worthwhile noting that Sony and Samsung both are extremely well-funded where Sony in particular, can leverage its PS4 consumer base to hit the ground running with its headset. Microsoft, of course, possesses a similar advantage with its Xbox One fans.
While its headset's functionality likely will be used with smartphones, Samsung does have a wide app and gaming environment to help bolster its offering. There may also be other unexplored advantages to coupling a 3D experience with the convenience and portability of a smartphone. Google Cardboard, too, could find itself benefitting from this paradigm, with VR for G3 and even with the Project Tango tablet.
In the end, the future of VR headsets will inevitably revolve around these devices' ability to make gamers (and then, presumably, the wider non-gaming market) want to use them. That means the goal is making them affordable, wearable and simply better at creating a compelling graphical experience than the current model. In either case, the public will find out who truly has the upper hand in a matter of months.