Who Is Going to Win the Virtual Reality Race?

In truth, virtual reality tech has been around for a while now. I’d venture to guess it’s been around for at least a decade, maybe more. That said, it hasn’t been viable for much other than consumer-based products. That’s unfortunate, because it doesn’t take a genius to understand the potential implications for such a technology.

Imagine a surgeon who can hone his craft in a virtual environment, without ever harming anyone. That same tech could be used to train military personnel, law enforcement or even service employees like firefighters and paramedics. Of course, that’s just the beginning. Virtual reality tech would be a benefit in any market — even retail.

That’s why it’s so amazing to see how far the VR world has come in just the past few years. Companies like Google, Samsung, Sony and Oculus all have concepts or a working prototype for various VR based platforms. Every day, each of these brands gets closer to bringing their product and VR tech to market.

It’s not just virtual reality either, AR — augmented reality — is seeing a boone too. For instance, tech colossus Microsoft recently unveiled the HoloLens, an AR platform that will merge digital media and the real world through holograms.

This is some insane, futuristic stuff people! It’s exciting!

It begs the question, how close are these companies to actually releasing a product? How long will it be until we can get our grubby hands on a working VR or AR device?

That’s exactly what we’re going to take a look at.

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift dev kit 2

It just makes sense to start with the industry leader, and the company that’s been in the space for the longest; Oculus.

Looking at the most recent device, it’s difficult to imagine that back in 2012 the company was using a prototype covered in duct-tape and obtrusive cables. Oculus has come a long way, and they owe a lot of that to the $2 billion acquisition by Facebook in March, 2014.

The most recent dev kit for the Oculus Rift — dubbed the Crescent Bay — is world’s better in appearance and functionality than the original. In fact, some of the specs are so promising that it’s earned Oculus the title of industry leader.

At the center of the Oculus Rift are two 1080p Samsung-brand OLED screens, operating at a 960 x 1080 resolution. Together, they offer users a 110 degree field of view, complete with depth and movement tracking thanks to an infrared camera system. In addition, there are 40 infrared emitters in the headset that can be used in a multitude of ways.

When paired with a Leap Motion controller, wearers will get a more complete sense of immersion in whatever virtual world they’ve entered. One of the biggest changes in the latest model from the previous one, is that the framerate is smoother. Although, there’s still no word on when this bad-boy is coming to market — if ever.

Oculus’ inventor Palmer Luckey seems to believe the device will see a 2015 launch, but there’s been no official confirmation yet so we’ll see.

HTC Vive

HTC Vive VR headset

Next on the list is the crowd favorite, or what many refer to as “the VR dream team.” Valve is teaming up with HTC to create a VR device called the HTC Vive. Like the Oculus Rift, the Vive will be centered around PC gaming and entertainment-based immersion.

Why is it so popular with the fanboys and fangirls? It seems a bit silly to explain, but really it’s because Valve is behind the project. You may know them for a little PC gaming platform called Steam.

As great as Valve is, it’s still possible for them to muck up this project right along with the HTC team behind it. Perhaps what makes it so promising is that it’s powered by the SteamVR platform. The software has been in beta since January, 2015 and it’s designed to make VR navigation much more efficient.

Supposedly, the HTC Vive is on the top-end of the market, offering much clearer and higher-definition visuals than some of the other devices on this list. Of particular note, is the support for 360 degree movement which can be translated into the virtual world.

As for the Vive device, it includes 37 sensors and two infrared cameras on the front of the unit which communicate via a wireless connection. The head straps on the Vive are certainly nothing new, and the whole setup looks remarkably similar to the Oculus Rift. At this point, we don’t know much else about it.

It’s been reported that the HTC Vive will hit shelves this holiday season, but we’ll believe it when we see it. What makes the Vive so interesting is that the project goals seem to align more with Sony’s Project Morpheus than the Oculus Rift. Oculus is more intent on offering universal experiences, while Morpheus and Vive seem to be gunning for user-engagement and virtual interaction.

The biggest problem we see with the Vive is the price, which will likely be high. Few are willing to sacrifice an arm and a leg for a bulky headset like this, at least as we stand currently. That may change when these devices start hitting the market.

Sony’s Project Morpheus

Project Morpheus

One of the more obvious uses of VR is in gaming. Seriously, who doesn’t want to experience a visit to Hyrule, Skyrim, Eorzea, or City 17. Some of those worlds won’t be possible just yet, especially since we’re talking about a Sony branded device, but that’s alright. You get the point.

Sony is working on a device called Project Morpheus with a goal to bring VR tech to the console gaming world. The company showed off Morpheus at GDC 2015, which appeared to be pretty damn polished. They also announced they’re shooting for an “early 2016” release.

The most up-to-date model includes two 5.7-inch OLED screens operating at a 1920 x RGB x 1080 resolution. This allows the field of view to be stretched to 100 degrees, with a possibility of 120FPS output. Holy hell, 120 frames per second? Don’t you worry about how ridiculous that sounds, an SDK kit will allow 60FPS content to be pushed to 120FPS as necessary.

Oddly enough, the Morpheus headset is fairly light which means it will be safe enough to wear for hours at a time. This is possible because Sony opted to swap out some of the components of the original prototype for those with much lighter materials.

Other than HTC and Vive, Sony is in the best position to dominate the market. That’s because the company has its own movie and television studios, both of which can deliver exclusive content. This is on top of their robust Playstation ecosystem, which will offer an endless supply of possibilities as it is.

Project Morpheus looks to be a platform centered on entertainment and gaming first. That alone should earn it a pretty loyal following, provided Sony can deliver a solid device.

Microsoft HoloLens

Microsoft HoloLens AR headset

It’s surprising that Microsoft only recently unveiled the HoloLens at GDC 2015, which has actually been under development for about seven years now.

We don’t know much about Microsoft’s brainchild just yet, except that it might allow us to play Minecraft in the real world via holograms at some point. That’s the unique take on the HoloLens, which is more akin to AR or augmented reality tech than VR.

Apparently, Microsoft whipped up a special processor for the HoloLens, dubbed the HPU or holographic processing unit. Of course, the device also uses a dedicated CPU and GPU, as well.

The idea behind the platform is that it will project digital content into the real world, a la holographic projections. It will be wireless, allowing users to remain free and clear to move about and interact with the projections around them. Purportedly, it doesn’t need a PC, phone or mobile device to operate — we don’t need to explain the promise of untethered use. That said, the wireless functionality certainly brings into question the battery ratings we’ll see from this thing.

As an aside, a unique service called Holo Studios will allow users to create objects with the headset, which may then be printed via a 3D printer. That feature alone is pretty cool.

Like Sony, Microsoft has a great deal of support behind the platform including their Windows ecosystem and Xbox brand. It’s possible the company will adapt their device to fit a whole slew of entertainment options, but we won’t know for sure until it launches.

The untethered aspect of the HoloLens means Microsoft’s device is one of the most innovative in the space. Then again, it has to live up to it’s potential before it can be crowned anything — as does everything else on this list.

Razer OSVR

Razer OSVR

It was only a matter of time before Razer entered the space, and the OSVR is their first attempt. The platform is called Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) and similar to how the Oculus initially started, they aim to create an open VR platform for all. The platform will be free, allowing third party brands to create both software apps and hardware for the platform — similar to Android.

The OSVR is only accessible to developers currently, but it should be available to the public sometime in 2015.

All that aside, Razer wouldn’t be on the list if they didn’t have any hardware to show. They remain relevant thanks to the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit, which is a head mounted display just like the others on this list. It’s not anywhere close to ready for consumer use, but it’s promising and that’s what counts.

It doesn’t take much to see that an open-source VR platform is limitless. Sadly, the true potential of Razer’s platform and hardware won’t be realized for some time.

Samsung Gear VR

Samsung Gear VR

Say what you will about Samsung’s Gear brand, but they certainly turned it into quite the success. It wasn’t really a surprise then that the company dubbed their device, the Gear VR.

They first unveiled the Gear VR at IFA 2014, with the biggest tie-in being the connection to their Galaxy devices. You can’t use a Gear VR headset without a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, so it’s not standalone. The mobile device connects to the headset through a port in the front, which is also where it sits during use.

More recently, at MWC 2015 Samsung announced a newer Gear VR model that works in tandem with either a Samsung Galaxy S6 or the Galaxy S6 Edge.

All of Samsung’s headsets are powered and produced by Oculus tech, so you could make the argument that Oculus is the real winner here. There’s also the point that the Gear VR models are much more portable than anything else on this list.

Plus, it is the only VR device that’s actually made it to market. If you wanted, you could go pick up the Gear VR right now. You would just need one of Samsung’s compatible handsets to get any use out of it.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard DIY VR headset

Paired up with all the other high-tech devices on this list, it’s tough to fathom the concept that Google was able to create capable tech with cardboard.

I/O Cardboard is exactly what the name implies; it’s a DIY cut-and-fold headset made out of cardboard that works with any Android phone thanks to a proprietary app. The driving idea behind the project is to provide inexpensive and attainable VR tech to all.

Like Razer’s OSVR platform, I/O Cardboard is open-source allowing anyone with the knowitall to jump in as a developer. In addition, Google has openly published the design for the Cardboard headset with no strings attached. You can take the design and build your own setup, using whatever materials you want.

It’s possible that Google may adapt this tech to a more advanced piece of hardware — such as Google Glass — but right now there doesn’t seem to be anything more. To make matters worse, everything else on this list is infinitely more promising than a piece of cardboard — which is really all I/O Cardboard is at its core.

Honorable Mentions

Avegant Glyph VR headset

We don’t have room to fit the entirety of the VR market on this list, so instead we decided to point out some honorable mentions here.

  • Google and LG’s VR for G3
  • Visus VR
  • Sulon VR’s Cortex Headset
  • Avegant Glyph (pictured above)
  • Google Glass (AR)
  • CastAR headset

Who’s Going to Win the Race?

Visus VR headset

There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen at this point, because one could make a valid argument for every one of the devices on this list. The real truth is that while some of these companies do have an advantage or two, that’s not enough to prove why any one of them would win the race.

Oculus is the industry leader, almost by default, because of how long they’ve been in the space. Sony is poised to be Oculus’ closest competitor with a device that’s dangerously close to launch. Of course, then there’s Microsoft, Valve/HTC and Razer hot on their heels. Throw in the likes of Avegant, Google, Samsung and many others and you have an extremely heated competition.

Yet, the winner won’t be the one who can push to market the fastest, but the one who can garner the biggest customer base. At this point, it really looks like Sony and Valve/HTC have the headstart in that department.

The real question is: which one of these devices will actually be affordable to consumers? You see, the real winner will be the one who can offer both affordability and functionality in one package. Which company is going to be the one that creates not the most compelling device on the market but the most accessible? Could it be Google, who launched the open I/O Cardboard platform?

We’ll find out soon enough. Many of these companies claim a 2015 – 2016 launch is possible.

If you couldn’t already tell, we’re rooting for Sony and Valve/HTC. That said, we’ll be fine with anyone on this list taking the lead. What about you?

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