Last week there has been the CES, maybe the biggest technology show of the year. As it is a tradition of this blog, I have read everything I could about the AR and VR technologies showcased there, and I’ve condensed all the news in a single article, that you can skim fast until you find a topic you are interested in.
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AR and VR at CES
This CES has been very good for augmented and virtual reality, but it has not been exciting.
From what I’ve been able to read, AR and VR were everywhere on the showfloor: there were not only the XR companies showcasing their devices (e.g. Pico, nReal, etc…), but also other companies using AR and VR as a cool way to show their products, and other companies teasing AR as a future feature for their solutions. For instance, many automotive producers were teasing the use of AR windshields in the future. Some time ago, someone talked about the fact that “VR is dead”, but after this CES, I can confirm that VR is alive and kicking. XR maybe will take some time to become mainstream, but it is here to stay: the interest is growing.
Notwithstanding this great enthusiasm, though, there has been no disruptive XR news from this CES. Last year we had nReal showing us that AR can be trendy, and HTC making us dream with the Vive Cosmos. This year on the show floor have been presented mostly linear evolutions of existing devices, clones of other headsets or prototypical solutions. Nothing that will shake the ecosystem.
Yes, the biggest companies were not there with a booth (Oculus will probably target the OC6, HTC the VEC, etc…), but it is the first time that I read the XR news from CES and I dont’ remain surprised.
I think that this CES is the emblem of the whole 2020, that probably won’t show big disruptions in the XR field, but will make AR and VR grow linearly, exploiting the successes of VR in 2019 (when Quest and Valve Index went sold-out). This year, I expect incremental innovations, interesting accessories and compelling content (like Half-Life: Alyx), that will make AR and VR grow, but I don’t expect any earthquake.
That will probably happen later on. Michael Abrash at OC6 stated that truly next-gen VR will happen in some years, and consumer AR will take even more, and until that time we will just enjoy incremental evolutions (more framerate, more resolution, etc…). This means that probably we’ll need to wait at least for CES 2021 or 2022 to see again something that will truly amaze us. We’ll wait.
The symbol of this incremental growth is nReal, that has been chosen by the epic journalist Charlie Fink as the most interesting XR gadget of 2019, the one that everyone wanted to try… even if it featured very little innovations over last year’s version. (But I’ve put it at the first place of this roundup because I don’t want to contradict the mighty Charlie Fink!) The lightweight fashionable AR glasses have attracted the interest of many people and journalists, and the company is preparing for a great launch of its consumer-oriented HMD for $500 in Q2-Q3 2020.
nReal at CES has announced some strategic partnerships and some content.
As for the partnerships, the most intriguing one is the one with my friends at 7Invensun, one of the worldwide leading companies in eye-tracking technologies. I guess nReal will experiment with eye-tracking for a new version of the headset, maybe targeted at the enterprise market. The partnership with 6d.ai, instead, will help the Chinese manufacturer in having a less shaky positional tracking and also in offering virtual elements that get occluded by real ones.
nReal has just a 3DOF controller (that can also just be your smartphone), but it has just announced that you can pair it with Finch controllers or Black Shark gaming kit to play 6DOF games all around your home.
It has also partnered with various Chinese phone carriers, so that the device will be used to perform 5G demos.
These partnerships make nReal glasses more complete and efficient, and also give a vision of how will be the future iterations of the device (that will have eye tracking and 6DOF controllers for sure).
Regarding content, nReal has showcased some nice demos like an AR application that shows you how we will buy clothes in the future and a clone of Fruit Ninja in AR. But the most important innovation is for sure Nebula, the UI of the glasses.
Nebula has a great vision, the one of giving you infinite screens all over your room, an interface that is natural and beautiful to be seen, and the possibility of using your 2D applications of the smartphone on a big virtual screen that you can pin everywhere (imagine watching Netflix on it!). Unluckily, the reality is still a bit different, and the UI at the moment looks like a standard big menu with circular icons. Furthermore, the FOV of only 52° makes it difficult enjoying movies on a big screen.
Next year, Nreal Light will launch to consumers. It will be the first AR glass truly for consumers, and I’m curious to see how it will perform: the price is right, the phone connection is cool as well… but will the average consumer find the applications on it compelling enough? We’ll discover it in some months…
Learn more on:
- Next Reality
- Upload VR
As it is a tradition in the Far East, if a product proves to be successful, many clones start popping up like mushrooms proposing more or less the same thing. And since nReal is the AR device of the moment, many Chinese companies are trying to emulate it. I’ve seen many photos of journalists at CES wearing colored AR glasses that are similar to nReal, but that are not the nReal Light.
Two examples are 0Glasses and Am Glasses: they try offering a similar product at a cheaper price (e.g. Am Glasses devkit cost $100 less than nReal), hoping to get a share of the market. These companies have already been able to get some partnerships with Chinese carriers to perform 5G demos, and it will be interesting to see how (and if) they’ll grow from now on. They also make promotional videos that are a mix of futurism and a healthy dose of WTF, like this one:
nReal has still a big strategic advantage, though. It is more or less the only glass of this kind known in the west, it has the best product among them (according to the reviews), and it has the best partnerships. Anyway, the Chinese startup landscape is very fast and competitive, so it is possible that a company that looks weird now will be successful in the future. Let’s see.
Learn more on:
- Next Reality (0Glasses)
- Next Reality (Am Glass)
The most photographed headset after nReal Light has been the Panasonic VR headset.
Panasonic has just showcased at CES this prototypical 3DOF VR headset, that has gone viral for its cool-looking steampunk design. Wearing it, you immediately look like an evil character from a steampunk novel.
We know very little about it. The glasses feature very high resolution (no mention of the actual pixels) and a very limited field of view (around 70° diagonal). They mount two Kopin OLED microdisplays, that are able to keep the glasses little while giving a very big pixel density. Trying it, many people have praised the fact that the screen-door-effect was almost inexistent. Thanks to the OLED displays and the fact that this is the first headset ever supporting HDR, everyone also loved the quality of the imagery.
They also feature integrated audio via earphones (a pretty original solution) and mechanical IPD adjustment, also this offered with an ingenious mechanism:
Panasonic has used many technologies it has developed while producing other devices (e.g. Blue-Ray players) to create this high-quality product. And it has also some ideas to improve the limited FOV and to offer 6DOF tracking. Regarding the last point, I’m a bit skeptical because this would mean adding additional cameras, and so weight and complexity to the current design (that weights only 150 grams).
These glasses are very similar to the Huawei VR glasses. When I tried Huawei VR glasses, I predicted they would have disrupted the market of VR viewers, and it seems that I was right. All companies producing 3DOF headsets are now going towards that form factor, which makes the headsets look like big sunglasses and not like shoeboxes. And these headsets all work by being connected to the PC or an Android phone.
Someone may argue that 3DOF is not VR, but actually, from my experience as a consultant, I can tell you that there is still room for 3DOF viewers as media consumption devices (e.g. to watch movies when you are on a plane in full privacy) in both the consumers and enterprise spaces and this form factor helps a lot in making media viewers usable also in public places.
Panasonic is looking for partners and customers to fully develop this concept into a VR product. I’m very curious to discover what will be the reception of the market if they will ever be released.
Learn more on:
- The Verge
- Upload VR
- Upload VR
Pico Neo 2
Chinese producer Pico Interactive has released at CES the Neo 2, its latest standalone VR headset. And it is a pretty interesting device, that has some specifications that are better than the top devices on the market, that is the Oculus Quest and Vive Focus Plus. It features:
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 reference design
- 4K (3,840 × 2,160) total resolution
- 101° FOV
- 75Hz refresh rate
- 128 GB of storage
- Integrated audio + 3.5mm jack
- Wi-fi + Bluetooth connectivity
- Software IPD Adjustment
- Two 6DOF controllers (tracked with electromagnetic technology)
- Optional eye tracking (offered by Tobii)
- Weight balancing by putting the battery on the back of the head
As you can see, it is a pretty interesting headset, and also the price is very good: $700 for the standard Neo 2 and $900 for the Neo 2 Eye (the one with integrated eye tracking).
Someone wonders if this may be the Quest killer, and my answer is no. This is a device that targets the enterprise market, because Pico knows that it can’t compete on the consumers’ side with the Quest that costs only $399, has a huge library of compelling content (including Beat Saber and other cool games) and is also more polished. In fact, also its controllers don’t look very sexy, but they are really ok for enterprise use.
And I think that for the enterprise this may be a solid device. Pico has a great expertise in handling enterprise users, this device costs $300 less than the enterprise version of the Oculus Quest, and it is more powerful. It may also feature eye tracking, that can be very important for some training applications. The reviews highlight that Pico has also solved many of the issues haunting the Neo 1, which had a terrible tracking, and now both the controllers and the headset have a good tracking. It is not as perfect as Oculus Insight, it still features movements that are not completely fluid, but for standard enterprise usage (mainly in training applications), it is more than ok.
So yes, this could become the Quest killer, but in the enterprise sector. The card that Oculus can still play is offering a better service (assistance, device management, etc…), but we will discover if this will be the case when Oculus will finally launch its Oculus for Business program, that is having continuous delays.
Pico has also shown the prototype of a new device, the Pico G3 Light, that is the evolution of the Pico Goblin, slimming down the form factor to a pair of big sunglasses. Yes, this is another device inspired by the Huawei sunglasses, very good for media consumption.
The specifications look pretty cool as well:
- 1,600 × 1,600 LCD display per eye
- 90Hz refresh rate
- Software IPD adjustment
- 0-800 diopter adjustment for each eye
- 3DOF motion controller
- Phone connectivity
It is also interesting to note that this viewer can feature such a small form factor thanks to the use of pancake lenses developed by Pico itself. As Ben Lang of Road To VR explains very well, pancake lenses are very important:
The pancake lens approach condenses the length of the optical path by ‘folding’ it back on itself through the use of polarized light and multiple lens elements. This approach has various tradeoffs, but allows the display to be much closer to the lens compared to the simple, single lenses found in most consumer headsets today.Benjamin Lang, Road To VR
The icing on the cake is that Mozilla has just announced that Firefox Reality is coming to Pico devices very soon.
Pico is one of the companies to follow in the enterprise sector for 2020.
Learn more on:
- Venture Beat
- Road To VR (Pico Neo 2)
- Road To VR (Pico G3 Light)
- Road To VR (Firefox Reality)
Pimax could have been the big news of this CES, but it has been not. Some days before the beginning of the CES, I got the insider info that the Pimax Artisan, the new low-cost headset of the company would have cost $449 while offering 1700×1440 resolution per eye, 170° FOV and up to 120 Hz of refreshrate. I was excited because with that low price it could have disrupted the whole VR market, costing more or less like a Rift S, but having much superior specifications.
Actually, it has not happened. Pimax has yes announced the Artisan, and yes its price starts at $449, but for THE HEADSET ONLY. If you add the controllers, base stations, etc… more or less you obtain the same price of the Valve Index. This is not much exciting. Pimax thinks that to lower the cost you can use the Artisan together with NOLO Positional tracking, but honestly, I think that NOLO is a solution that is mostly suitable for cardboards, but it is no good if you want to play very active VR games.
Pimax has also announced a new headset: the 5K Super, a device with 5K resolution plus the astonishing refreshrate of 180Hz, the highest on the market. We have no price info on this device, but we can expect it to be around $700-$800 (for the headset only, of course).
Interested users have also been able to try the Pimax 8K X, the super-powerful headset that Pimax teased during its Kickstarter campaign (a bit late, so). The headset’s resolution and field of view are impressive (4K per eye, up to 200° diagonal FOV), and the headset feels quite comfortable. The company is also working on reducing the distortions of the lenses and the other problems that always affect this kind of high-FOV headsets. The good news is that finally, it should be close to ready and it should ship in March-April 2020.
I think that Pimax has to completely rework its strategy. At CES, it has announced two new headsets, while still having delays in offering the devices and accessories it had already promised. I love how Pimax wants to innovate the VR market, but I think that it should realize that it is just a little startup and so it has not infinite money: it should focus in offering very well 1 or 2 models, instead of proposing 6 headsets. This strategy creates problems in the manufacturing line (and so many delays) and also confuses a lot the customers. For instance, does someone know the differences between the 5K Super, 5K Plus and 5K XR?
Thanks God, Road To VR has made a great table to compare all the devices:
|Vision 8KX||Vision 8K Plus||5K Super|
|Resolution (per lens)||3,840 x 2,160||3,840 x 2,160||2,560 x 1,440|
|Display type||LCD, RGB stripe||LCD, RGB stripe||LCD, RGB stripe|
|Rendering||Native 4K per eye||Upscale 1440p to 4K||Native 2,560 x 1,440|
|FOV||200° (D), 170° (H), 115° (V)||200° (D), 170° (H), 115° (V)||200° (D), 170° (H), 115° (V)|
|Refresh rate||75/120 Hz||110/90 Hz||180/160 Hz|
|Included headstrap||Modular Audio Strap (MAS)||Modular Audio Strap (MAS)||Modular Audio Strap (MAS)|
|5K Plus||5K XR||Artisan|
|Resolution (per lens)||2,560 x 1,440||2,560 x 1,440||1,700 x 1,440|
|Display type||LCD, RGB stripe||OLED||LCD, RGB stripe|
|Rendering||Native 2,560 x 1,440||Native 2,560 x 1,440||Native 1,700 x 1,440|
|FOV||200° (D), 170° (H), 115° (V)||200° (D), 170° (H), 115° (V)||170° (D), 140° (H), 115° (V)|
|Refresh rate||120/90 Hz||85 Hz||120/90 Hz|
|Included headstrap||Flexible (MAS optional)||Flexible (MAS optional)||Flexible (MAS optional)|
|Price||$699||$899||$449 (basic), $??? (Nolo VR version)|
Doing this way, it has hurt its reputation. I really hope it will manage to recover from the errors of the past, because it is offering very interesting devices.
Learn more on:
- Road To VR (Artisan)
- Upload VR (Artisan)
- Upload VR (Pimax 5K SUPER)
- Road To VR (All Pimax devices)
- Tom’s Hardware (Pimax 8K X hands-on)
Nolo wasn’t at CES just to propose itself as the tracking system of the Pimax headsets and the Huawei glasses. It has also launched what it claims to be “The first 6DOF Cloud VR solution”: the NOLO N2 VR headset + NOLO CV1 Pro-Motion tracking kit, for less than $200.
My hat is down for Nolo, that has managed to add in only one sentence many fluffy marketing tech words. What is defined as “The first 6DOF Cloud VR solution” is basically a cardboard with attached Nolo positional tracking system. The idea is that if the phone is 5G, it could be used to play games from the Cloud. It could be nice for Chinese phone operators to showcase their 5G technology, but I don’t envision it being much relevant for consumers, at first because Cardboard viewers are dead, and then because 5G will need a lot of time to be rolled out around the world… and there isn’t an infrastructure to stream VR content via 5G yet.
Learn more on:
VRSS, or Variable Rate Super Sampling, is one of the most important news announced at CES 2020. It is a new technology by NVIDIA that lets you super-sample only a certain part of the frame rendering on your screen, and render normally all the rest.
What does it mean? Imagine it as a special case of foveated rendering, but working in the opposite way. So instead of rendering with a lower quality the parts of the images that your eyes can’t see properly, you render with a higher quality the parts that fall in your fovea and that you can see very well. This region gets “supersampled”, that is it gets rendered at a higher resolution and then shrunk to the required size. The result is an image where you can appreciate better the details and the quality of the visuals is generally higher. Since most famous headsets lack eye tracking, this region rendered with higher quality is always at the center of your vision (for now).
NVIDIA has made this mechanism adaptive, that is you can let the runtime decide how big should be this “high-resolution area”: if the system is rendering the frames pretty fast, then this area will be bigger, if it is struggling to keep the pace with the game engine, this area will be little or non-existent.
VRSS already works with the latest drivers of NVIDIA RTX graphics cards and it is supported in 24 VR games, among which popular titles like Boneworks and Lone Echo. Since it must not be implemented by the developer, actually you can try activating it also for games that are not officially supported. Keep in mind that the game must support MSAA and forward rendering for this to work.
People that own a NVIDIA RTX card will be very happy of the added performances that VRSS can add to their VR games!
Learn more on:
- Babel Tech Reviews (What is VRSS + hands-on)
- Upload VR (What is VRSS + Supported games)
- Upload VR (How to activate VRSS)
Samsung AR glasses
Probably the true surprise of the whole show has been Samsung, that during its press conference has teased some AR glasses. On the stage, it showed an exoskeleton called GEMS (Gait Enhancing & Motivating System), that could be used together with a pair of AR glasses connected to a Galaxy Phone to perform a workout together with a virtual trainer.
Samsung has not talked about the glasses, not even revealing the name, or the specifications. They look like the nReal Light (another clone?) but we know zero about it. I guess they just wanted us to know they are working on this technology. Ok Samsung, you have our attention. Especially mine, since I have developed