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A Quest Competitor

I’ve already written that the biggest threat to VR right now is Quest 2. I know it’s a radical statement, but I think deep down, many in the community (including Quest owners) know it’s true – because I keep hearing the same line repeated over and over: The Quest needs a competitor.

Even to the most optimistic, this prospect seems like a long shot. Facebook want so desperately to own VR that they’re sinking huge amounts of money to establish dominance in the space. Nobody can compete on price, game exclusives, or R&D spend. Facebook are buying a monopoly on the metaverse.

To whom shall we cast our hope? Which HMD messiah shall save our souls from a bleak, data harvesting, advertising driven, IOI future? Who is most likely to stand up to the Big Bad Blue’s consumer HMDs?

We’re on the hunt for a future headset with these features:

  • Standalone (no PC required)
  • 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF)
  • Two positionally tracked controllers
  • Access to a large library of games
  • Priced for consumers (not enterprise)

That’s not so much to ask, is it? Let’s break down the possibilities:

Valve

Our favourite, well funded, AAA, all-in on VR studio has absolutely zero incentive to create a standalone HMD. They create high-end PC games, not highly optimised mobile games. And they own the world’s largest game store, which caters exclusively to PC gaming.

True, they’ve got some good practice manufacturing VR hardware with the Valve Index. But unless you’re going to strap an RTX 3080 to your face and find a big enough battery, a standalone Index ain’t gonna happen.

Microsoft Xbox

Microsoft has two fronts from which it can approach the VR market. One route is via Xbox. Unfortunately, standalone VR is far less likely than a HMD paired to the Xbox itself. Even that prospect is unlikely. Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has expressed a very bearish outlook on VR. Here’s Spencer on episode 1000 of the GamerTag Radio podcast, responding to a question about Xbox and VR:

We’re not going to do (VR). I understand certain people would want that. We have to focus our efforts on the things we’re doing right now.

Microsoft Mixed Reality (HP, Lenovo, Acer, et. al.)

The second way Microsoft can approach the VR market is through their Windows Mixed Reality platform. Microsoft have built VR support into Windows, and published the WMR spec to allow multiple manufacturers to create their own flavours of compatible HMDs.

Most of the major brands worldwide are investing in some way in virtual reality.

The first attempt at this was a little lacklustre, but not entirely dismissible – especially when you consider that the HP Reverb G2 is a WMR headset.

It’s entirely possible for Microsoft to continue building on the WMR spec, expanding it into standalone territory. In fact, they already have a Snapdragon optimised version of Windows, and a Windows app store through which to distribute content. Yes – it is entirely possible that the next generation of WMR headsets could run a standalone version of Windows, with the Windows Store as the distribution platform. There could be multiple manufacturing partners, just like WMR gen one, except this time with (hopefully) better controllers. Or, there could be just one manufacturer. HP were a Windows Mixed Reality hardware launch partner, and by most accounts, have been the most successful. Plus, with the Reverb G2, HP took a small step outside of the WMR spec, developing their own take on the WMR controllers, and partnering with Valve on lenses and audio.

HP alone may not have the software distribution platform to support standalone hardware, but they do have an excellent hardware engineering and manufacturing pedigree, openness to partnerships, and a willingness to experiment in VR. Supported by the Windows Store, HP may yet surprise us with a standalone HMD.

Sony

Despite repurposing dated technology to hack together a 6DOF solution, Sony’s PlayStation VR has been one of the best selling HMDs to date. PlayStation VR has had some killer exclusive titles and a large, loyal following. Unfortunately, Sony seem to be slowly backing away from their VR success story. With no mention of VR surrounding the PlayStation 5 launch, it also seems Sony is intent on keeping the current PSVR away from PlayStation 5 titles, only offering backward compatibility with PlayStation 4 titles. Plus, there’s this (now infamous) quote from PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan, speaking to the Washington Post in October 2020:

Will it be this year? No. Will it be next year? No. But will it come at some stage? We believe that.

Some may hold out hope for a standalone PSVR in the same vein as the PlayStation Portable – but again, there’s the store problem. They may have the distribution network, but all PlayStation VR games are made for x86 hardware, not mobile ARM chips.

HTC

Ahh, HTC Vive. The OG VR manufacturer that we love to hate. The 2016 Vive was nothing short of revolutionary. The 2018 Vive Pro was pretty good too. The 2019 Vive Pro Eye was too expensive. The 2020 Vive Cosmos was a joke.

Could HTC make a comeback? Absolutely – I’m rooting for them. Is it likely? Well, that’s one hell of a trajectory to pull up from.

Virtual Reality Doesn’t Replace Real Life. Strapping on a virtual reality headset is an amazing experience. In fact, it’s so realistic that you almost feel as if you’re visiting a location or taking part in an activity. But the key word in this sentence is “almost.” Virtual reality isn’t meant to replace real life, but instead enhance it. One of the best examples of this is how the travel industry uses virtual reality. For destinations and hotels, virtual reality is a research tool that enables potential guests get a glimpse of what it would be like to visit or book a room.

Left out of the list above, though, is the Vive Focus. The Focus is an exclusively enterprise standalone product that says a lot about the problem here. Vive have the experience, capability, and resolve to create a real standalone Quest competitor. The Focus is standalone and 6DOF, and we know that HTC can create reasonable controllers. What it doesn’t have – yet – is a software distribution platform. But wait, don’t they have Viveport – HTC’s VR game subscription service? Wouldn’t a Vive Focus linked to Viveport be the Quest competitor we’re looking for? With a subscription model, it could be quite a compelling product!

Not quite. It’s a subtle point – the same as I made for the PlayStation. There’s a vast difference between games built for PC (x86) and games built for mobile devices like the Quest (ARM). Not only are they completely distinct builds, but they’re also extremely difficult to port, often requiring a complete rewrite of the game.

Unfortunately, Viveport is exclusively PC games. Nothing there is built for standalone.

Yet there remains a glimmer of hope. What if HTC leans in to the success of the Quest? HTC might leverage its good relationship with PC VR developers to ask them to rebuild their Quest games for a standalone Vive. Porting a PC game to standalone VR is hard, but if a “Vive Focus 2” was built with similar hardware to the Quest 2, the work involved in porting existing Quest titles would be minimal.

In this scenario, developers would need to adapt their games with slightly different APIs (there’s no OpenVR standard for standalone HMDs), but HTC could try to make their endpoints as similar to Quest as possible.

Pimax

Pimax wouldn’t ever launch a standalone headset. They would launch four at once, confusingly named with different monikers and add-ons, and then they’d follow that up 6 months later with a partial refresh.

No, it’s extremely unlikely that this manufacturer, who can’t even get their act together enough to build the controllers they promised years ago, would ever figure out the standalone market.

Deca

Deca are a brand new entrant to the VR hardware list. Yet to actually produce a headset (we’re expecting review units in March 2021), they’re primarily focused on building a budget SteamVR headset, with hip tracking, face tracking, and a wireless PC connection. I’m excited about the DecaGear, but it’s not standalone.

Pico

Pico create standalone headsets for enterprise. Their Pico Neo 2 competes directly with the Vive Focus. It even has two 6DOF controllers. Why not release the Pico Neo 2 to consumers? Actually, in Asia, they do (the Pico Neo support SteamVR wireless streaming). So why haven’t we heard of it? Simple – no store. Enterprise customers use their own software on these products, but Pico has no relationship with game developers that it could extend into a consumer offering.

There are five individuals that have contributed greatly to the title virtual reality including Morton Heilig, Myron Krueger, Ivan Sutherland, Douglas Engelbart, and Jaron Lanier.

Lynx

Lynx are selling preorders for a standalone headset that does both AR and VR. You’ll never guess the audience. That’s right – another enterprise VR headset. They face the same problem as Pico. They have no store, and no relationship with game developers to build one.

Varjo & StarVR

Included here only for completeness, these companies build high-end, enterprise, PC VR headsets. Standalone simply isn’t their jam.

XRSpace

Now here’s an interesting idea. XRSpace are selling preorders for Manova – a standalone HMD that only does one thing: social VR with other Manova users. If we accept that the social VR experience – Manova World – is large and varied enough, and that the hand tracking in this context is good enough to replace controllers, the Manova technically fulfils our requirements as a Quest competitor. Of course, Manova World is unlikely to contain even a fraction of the experiences that the Quest store offers. Still, if social VR is your thing, and you don’t mind being locked down to a single social platform, this headset could be the worth a look.

Google

Remember Daydream? Me neither. It’s true, Google did briefly dabble in mobile VR (as in, mobile phone VR) with their Daydream platform, and gave us all the stomach turning experience of Google Cardboard. But VR has been long since forgotten by this tech giant.

Besides, we want a Quest competitor that doesn’t collect every iota of data it can get its hands on.

Apple

There has been a ton of talk lately about a dedicated Apple AR headset. Certainly, their work with ARKit and Lidar sensors seems to indicate a growing interest in the spatial tech. Macrumors has been reporting on “Apple Glasses” patents, acquisitions, and rumours since 2016. Now what if… and this is a big what if, but go with me here… what if Apple’s first AR glasses are pass-through AR? This AR method takes a closed-in VR headset, equips it with stereo cameras, and passes the camera feed through to the screens. This pass-through method has a side-effect of enabling “VR mode”, where the real world cameras are turned off and replaced by a virtual world.
We are making a few logical leaps to arrive at this conclusion – one must accept that Apple is developing an AR headset, AND that headset is pass-through, AND that will include a VR mode. Even so, the possibility of a pass-through AR headset might not be that far-fetched. In November of 2017, Apple purchased Vrvana, a company building a AR/VR combo headset. If such a headset were to be combined with Apple’s world-leading App Store and developer ecosystem, that’s a seriously viable alternative to the Quest.

Summary

Short of something completing surprising us out of nowhere, there are really only three possibilities of a Quest competitor emerging over the next year or two. They are, in my estimation of likeliness:

Jaron Lanier created a virtual reality device in the 1980’s (EyePhone 1/HRX) and costed up to $49,000 for the goggles and gloves.

  1. Microsoft “Mobile” Windows Mixed Reality
  2. HTC Vive Focus 2 with Viveport
  3. Apple Glasses in VR Mode

🤞

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