Bloomberg reports that Facebook and Oculus are launching a new VR headset with the goal of making VR a true mass-market device.
Currently, there are four primary types of VR headsets: First, there are desktop-based VR headsets that provide high-end VR experiences, complete with positional tracking (i.e., you can walk around in VR) but which come at a somewhat high cost (starting at $399 for Oculus Rift and Playstation VR; $799 for HTC Vive) and must be connected to a powerful VR-ready PC.
Second, on the low end, you have Google Cardboard viewers, which are essentially just simple mounts with plastic lenses for your smartphone, which are very inexpensive (as low as $5) but only have basic tracking capability and thus provide no immersion.
Third, you have smartphone-based VR headsets with enhanced VR capabilities: the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream. These headsets use a smartphone just like Cardboard viewers, but they use many additional software and hardware technologies to make tracking as accurate as a desktop-VR headset, but without positional tracking. The headsets themselves do not cost much (up to $99), but they require high-end smartphones such as a Samsung S6 or above, or a Google Pixel.
Fourth, you have all-in-one VR headsets, and it appears that the new headset is of the fourth type. These are VR headsets that are similar to the third type (enhanced smartphone based VR headsets) but they do not use a phone or a PC, and are instead standalone devices. These headsets are virtually unknown in the West outside of trade shows, but there are actually already many of them in China. Here is an example from Gearbest.
Essentially, this type of headset provides the same capabilities as a Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream, with accurate rotational tracking, but no positional tracking. According to Bloomberg, Facebook and Oculus are working with Xiaomi to produce this type of headset, which will be released in 2018 for $200.
ANALYSIS / OPINION
I think it’s great that Facebook wants to democratize VR but I’m not sure if this is the way to do it. Phones are becoming more powerful, and an increasing number of them are becoming capable of decent quality VR experiences. Therefore, the market for a standalone VR headset with capabilities similar to the Gear VR seems to be shrinking.
The only opportunity I can think of is if they can make the device very sleek and compact. Few people bring a Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream wherever they go because they are kind of bulky, unless the user is a hardcore fan of VR. But if the headset were similar to the size of ordinary sunglasses, and require nothing more than a typical eyeglass case to carry, then I could see this being attractive to consumers. (In fact, there are already such headsets in China, but they don’t have a solid ecosystem to back them up.) There weren’t any photos of the new headset, so we don’t know yet if this is what Facebook is planning.
The one curious aspect about this announcement is that there was no mention of Samsung, Oculus’ partner for Samsung Gear VR. Will the new system have access to the Samsung Gear VR’s library of apps? Without Samsung’s consent, I seriously doubt it. Without apps, can the new headset survive? Or does Facebook intend to market the headset primarily for 360 photos and videos? Lots of questions…