This year’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) was definitely the place to check out the future of virtual reality. This exciting new technology that gamers have been dreaming about for decades has finally taken root and is set to be the way people game in the future. One of the most exciting developments in the field, standalone VR, was showcased this year at CES, and there is no doubt that when this technology is released to the market the appetite for it is going to be voracious. But what exactly is standalone VR and how it does factor into the future of virtual reality?
Standalone VR: The Untethered Possibilities
If you own a current-gen VR headset or have played with one, then you likely have felt the frustration of what is basically an umbilical cord that keeps you attached to your gaming console or computer. There is no doubt that VR headsets that did not have a cord connecting them to an outside unit would improve the VR experience, not to mention make it a great deal less dangerous. That’s exactly what the next-gen VR headsets aim to do.
These standalone units are possible due to an advance in technology called inside-out tracking. Inside-out tracking uses cameras on the outside of the VR headset that allows computers to see the environment around you, as well as where your hands are. This removes the need for various sensors and lighting systems that would normally be placed around the room. Essentially, the VR headset will be one complete battery-operated unit.
Inside-out tracking is new, but game companies have been working on it for many years. Microsoft’s Mixed Reality headsets use technology that was researched during development of the HoloLens and show that a VR experience with terrific depth-of-field can be manufactured for a consumer-friendly price.
Right now, the only standalone VR units are the ones that use mobile phones to present the VR experience. Unfortunately, this is a very poor experience compared to the VR that you get with gaming consoles and PC VR hookups. A standalone VR headset with inside-out tracking allows you to move around your space without any cords getting in the way. In fact, next-next gen VR headsets are going to be so advanced that all of your games, settings and complete connectivity will be stored within the headset and all you have to do is put it on and start playing. This is important to the marketplace, because right now, hooking up a VR system isn’t exactly for the technologically-challenged. But next-gen VR will make virtual reality gaming as easy as opening up a laptop and pushing the power button.
This also solves an important problem within VR – the inability to navigate an environment while you are immersed in the virtual world. Standalone consoles may be able to remove that problem completely by presenting the user with a picture of their environment within the headset, meaning that they will be able to use it while they are at home without running into walls and furniture, but also out in public such as at crowded bars or coffee shops. That’s also one of the advantages of the “cutting the cord” function of a standalone headset; you can take it with you anywhere you go and start using it. This also means the inevitable branching of VR into commercial and industrial applications, since it will be able to be used with almost no instructions by any skill level.
Of course, you could solve the problem of mobility using a VR treadmill (and there are quite a few on the market right now); or by using controllers for the movement part of a game. But this isn’t what users are looking for in virtual reality. What gamers really want is a fully immersive experience with as much freedom as possible.
What is probably the most exciting new feature for virtual reality is fully-function Mixed Reality headsets. Imagine being fully immersed in a virtual reality game while walking around outside, with the computer taking everything from your environment and incorporating it into the game. The safety factors are a little concerning, but the immersive possibilities are almost too exciting to be believed. For example, if you are playing a zombie game in an outdoor environment, and the computer takes objects in real time such as vehicles, other people and objects around you and incorporates them into your game, not only are you able to safely navigate while playing, but you also get actual sounds from passing cars, footsteps or other ambient noise that all adds to the realism of your gameplay.
Current Virtual Reality Headsets
Currently, there are two types of now-gen VR headsets. The first is the type of that connects to your gaming console or computer such as the Oculus Series and the HTC Vive. The computer has to be set up beforehand, and then the VR headset must be connected and configured. You also need external sensors and enough empty space so that you do not end up crashing into your coffee table while chasing down enemy soldiers. This makes it difficult for gamers and almost impossible for commercial and industrial application because the setup is difficult even for those who are technically savvy.
The other type of VR headset is the one that incorporates a mobile phone like the Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream. Not only do these headsets not offer the same user experience, but there is a great deal of maintenance involved such as keeping all lenses and surfaces spotless and ensuring that the phone does not move once it is inside the headset.
But standalone VR is going to change all that. Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed all have exciting advances already in the works, many of them showcased at CES, and things are only going to get better from there. In the next decade, virtual reality is going to take over gaming completely and standalone headsets are just the beginning.
Current Standalone Models:
Facebook’s version of a standalone headset offers the best of both worlds, portability, functionality, and a lower price point than that of the Oculus Rift. The Go will come in at the $199 USD price point which is great for consumers. Its the perfect fusion of a single self-contained headset, with decent graphic fidelity (although not the same as full tethered VR solutions) it will definitely hold its own. And while you wont have full head tracking the Go will still provide rotation of your head and a small controller for working with experiences.
HTC Vive Focus
The HTC Vive Focus is a standalone headset from HTC that provides a 3K AMOLED display which has world-scale tracking, 9-axis sensors as well as a proximity sensor. The FOV is 110 degrees and it is said to have over one week of usage on standby or 3 hours of active use on its battery. The Vive Focus comes with a controller like the Oculus Go and will offer an expansive library of content on the VivePort network. The design is sleeker and offers two colors in a “electric blue” and an “almond white” variation. The Vive Focus is set to come to market at a much more expensive $635 USD price point at the time of writing, which could drop by the time it is released in North America.
Google Daydream (Lenovo)
The Lenovo Mirage Solo with Daydream is Google’s version of standalone VR. They offer a clean version that is fully mobile as well and come in at a middle ground price tag of $400. More expensive than GO and cheaper than the Vive Focus. The Google-powered system has movement freedom apps from Daydream, but they are limited in space to 1.5 meters. Meaning that the headset will go black when you go beyond those boundaries.
Overall there are some great standalone headsets coming to market vary soon, it will be up to the content producers to figure out which one is the ideal headset. I believe that the winner in the standalone headset market will be the headset that has the best content offering.