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The actual CES show is spread across many locations in Las Vegas. The main exhibit halls are at or near to the Las Vegas Convention Center with three buildings, two floors each, all filled with hundreds of booths. Then there is The Sands Convention Center with multiple halls filled to the brim and hotels with their own convention centers and floors of exhibitor suites. With almost 200,000 in attendance, all locations are very busy. The point is that no one press group can cover it all. What we can do is cover the topics we are most knowledgeable with and most interested in.
In the past, I usually could cover what I saw and what interested me in in three articles, but not this year. There are so many technology advancements, with truly disruptive technology everywhere, that this article is Number 3 of what will probably be five articles.
For the last few years, I have been focusing on 3D printing for PCB fab, along with consumer tech such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality, and autonomous driving. And of course, as building high-end powerful computers is to me like golf is to some of you, I always look for the latest components and gadgets in that arena.
Let’s start with virtual reality, an area that has blasted off in the past year. CES devoted an entire area to VR, and you could find a sprinkling of VR in other areas also.
One of the pioneers among VR headsets is the HTC Vive. This computer-connected device, along with the Oculus Rift, was one of the first commercially available units. This year HTC showed us a new updated and more powerful unit, the HTC Vive Pro. For awhile, we were wondering if HTC was going to stay committed to VR, but the new Vive Pro seems to indicate that they are. The new features of the Pro include the addition of a second camera—not sure just exactly what having stereo cameras will mean, but perhaps it might have something to do with the Microsoft advances in mixed reality which requires a second camera for tracking your position instead of external sensor beacons. This is still speculation however. In addition, the new Vive Pro can now wirelessly connect to your PC using the just-announced Vive Wireless Adaptor. If you are in a virtual world, wireless is a huge improvement. With the new adaptor and the new battery pack, you can now wander the VR universe unencumbered by cables. Believe me, this is a significant improvement. In addition, while I did not have the opportunity to try it myself (I will do so as soon as possible), it is being reported that the Vive Pro displays the VR world with significantly increased sharpness and clarity. They are claiming that going wireless with their new hardware does not add any lag to the display. The reported resolution is a 2880X1600 AMOLED display; this is a 78% increase in pixel count, a significant step up.
An additional new VR device announced recently is the Lenovo Mirage Solo standalone headset, kind of a smartphone in a VR headset designed to work with Google Daydream and WorldSense. According to Forbes, WorldSense is an inside-out positional tracking system, which allows for six degrees of movement (the ability to move freely around virtually any space). What also makes the Mirage Solo a standalone headset is the fact that it has all the processing, connectivity, and display built into it. The Solo is a fully self-contained VR headset capable of operating independently of a connected computer, allowing it to be fully untethered.
My opinion is that we will see. I tend to like the power of a full, high-end computer running my VR experience rather than a less powerful device that requires separate programs and apps designed specifically for it. The Mirage Solo is scheduled to be available for purchase late spring 2018. I suspect that the device will be excellent, but I am not so sure regarding the applications that will be available for it upon launch.
So, what will these new offerings mean to one of the best-known pioneers in consumer VR, the Facebook-owned Oculus? HTC and others have competed with Oculus since just after the start of modern VR, MR and AR. For the last few years, both platforms have aggressively vied for market share in the high-end, highest quality space which caters to owners of powerful gaming PCs. Oculus has diversified its product lineup and seems to be a little out of focus with its varying offerings. They have also reduced prices more than once; does that mean that they are not happy with their market share? I am not sure where they stand, nor what market they are targeting. It almost seems that Oculus wants to dominate every segment and perhaps by doing so may not dominate any. Still, the Rift is one of the most advanced headsets around, with quite a bit of software/games/apps available. But the more advanced previews being shown at CES may change that. We will see.
Of course, there were many, many other VR headset offerings, some focused on specific markets such as medical, military, design, etc. Many of them are quite promising. These include the Looxid eye-tracking device; the Meshroom, which can turn CAD drawings into VR prototypes; and the Pimax 8K VR headset, an extremely high-resolution, with two 4K displays (one for each eye), and a 200-degree field of view which approaches the human eye's normal range.
A newly announced device that is quite interesting is the LUCI “immersion on demand” wearables and VR headset products, also known as "Immers." They are designed to be similar to a pair of glasses that you can carry, with the exception that as a VR headset is opaque, and you cannot use mixed reality (MR) where a virtual image is superimposed over the real world. It weighs in around 185 grams, about the weight of a smartphone—but designed to be as comfortable on the face as possible, and easily put on and removed. The resolution for such a lightweight device is amazing. The target audience seems to be those wanting to view commercially available content such as movies/videos. The device can deliver video in 3D at 4K resolution out of the box and thus will keep up with high-resolution VR content for years to come.
In addition, there were literally dozens of Shenzhen companies showing lower-priced but quite limited devices, although they were seemingly of good quality, comfortable to wear and easy to use. While they are being called VR headsets, in fact what they seem to be are low-powered standalone 3D viewers. As they are standalone, many of them feature only the demo software and perhaps a few very basic simple games (shoot the low-resolution Pokémon-like creature and raise your score). I am not sure if there is really a market for these; a few may survive but I cannot imagine most of them being a true part of the growing VR tech segment.
And there are more additions to the absolute low-end viewing devices, such as Google Cardboard, or another version by company X in plastic, that will give you an intro to VR. But the applications, image quality, comfort and usefulness are quite limited. These devices are basically slot-in holders for your smartphone, which has its display divided into two separate images that the viewer then converts into a decent, not great, 3D image.