Companies pushing new virtual reality headsets talked a good game at CES 2018 in Las Vegas this week. Facebook’s Oculus touted new features in its upcoming $200 Oculus Go, a device designed to do for VR what the iPhone did for the smartphone, Google and Lenovo showed off a jointly designed headset that will sell for the half the price of an iPhone, and HTC announced an updated Vive headset with beefier graphics. Hugo Barra, who runs virtual reality products for Facebook, says “VR is just in its infancy. We’re just seeing the market beginning to take off.”
The new gear is an improvement on what’s out there. It’s cheaper, lighter and less likely to require tethering to a smartphone or computer. That could help popularize VR technology.
It also gives companies something to sell while they figure out augmented reality, widely believed to have more mass-market appeal than virtual reality. VR isolates users while AR lays digital information over the real world, offering countless potential consumer and commercial applications—streaming basketball stats to fans during games, say, or sending instructions to mechanics repairing complicated equipment.
Companies are racing to be the first to get lightweight augmented reality glasses into consumers’ hands. Amazon, which pioneered the smart speaker, hasn’t said much publicly about AR or VR. But a person familiar with the company’s thinking said that it’s far more likely to choose augmented reality if it makes a headset. Amazon is actively exploring headset technologies, though a launch may be years away, another person said.
During CES, representatives from major players like Apple, Facebook, and Google met with suppliers that make the nuts and bolts required to power AR glasses, according to people familiar with the meetings. Smaller firms like Snap and China’s Xiaomi also met with potential partners at the show, indicating a desire to build their own AR headsets. Behind the scenes, Samsung and LG have already placed small orders of AR components to start prototyping devices.
While the technological hurdles have been steeper than expected, the first products could arrive in the next couple of years. “Almost everyone is preparing an AR product,” says Ari Grobman, who runs an AR technology company called Lumus. “Some will lead; others will be in a position to follow right away.”
Mike Dennison, president of Flex’s consumer electronics group, says even though augmented reality is the “emerging victor,” the research expended so far on virtual reality will inform companies’ AR efforts. Still, he acknowledges that producing a viable AR device is taking longer than his partners anticipated, and much work needs to be done.
Clay Bavor, who runs Google’s VR and AR unit, says several technological breakthroughs will be required to miniaturize the display and optics. Brendon Kim, a Samsung Next Ventures executive, says his company is looking at AR carefully but also noted that the technology, including optics, isn’t ready for prime time. Facebook’s Barra says “we’re far away from an Oculus AR headset.”
All eyes are on Apple, which considers AR as potentially revolutionary as the smartphone. “Put simply, we believe AR is going to change the way we use technology forever,” Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said in a recent earnings call. Apple aims to have technology ready by the end 2019, Bloomberg News reported in November.
It’s an aggressive schedule that could well change. And even if Apple is first out of the gate, its rivals probably won’t be far behind. “It’s going to be a battle of the platforms,” Lumus’s Grobman says. “You have Windows, you have Apple, you have Android, and look at the Chinese giants.”