Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Apple: What do they do in VR?
It is a little over 8 years since the time that Oculus started as a startup to focus on producing affordable VR headsets with an acceptable field of view and affordable price as its advantages over existing devices. Many companies and startups started investing in creating content for this platform among which the game industry is the lead at investing in hardware and software and after that come other segments whose market size combined is less than the gaming industry (For more information you can look at two reports by grand view research on VR Market and VR Gaming Market). In this article I don’t want to talk about the gaming segment of this industry and major players in VR that work for this industry; however, there are a lot of experiences that we can learn from that section for other use cases of VR. In this article I want to share with you an overview of the most noticeable steps that tech giants have taken in VR area.
Acquiring Oculus in 2014 at more than $2 billion makes Facebook one of the most motivated and influential (if not the most) companies in VR. Though Facebook has been focusing on gaming enthusiasts mostly as their target audience, they provide so many other applications to make their headsets more valuable for other audiences. At their Oculus Connect conference in 2019, Facebook announced some interesting updates including the future launch of a social experience application named Horizon that will enable users to build their environments, communicate and interact with others as an immersive social network. However, this application is still in the Beta version and it is not clear when it will be accessible by public. Facebook seems to follow the same business strategy that Apple had for launching the iPhone and App store and tries to filter third-party applications content-wise. However, there are other unofficial channels that developers are using to launch their products on Oculus devices. Also in 2020 annual conference that was renamed to Facebook Connect, Facebook introduced Facebook Reality Labs that includes Oculus and VR products as well as other investments on Augmented Reality glasses that they are going to produce in partnership with RayBan.
Microsoft has put so much effort into the production of the Hololens AR headset that is a powerful standalone Mixed Reality headset. However, its high price tag ($3500) makes this product mostly an enterprise-level product. Though creating content for AR and VR have meaningful differences for designers, the technical skills to develop an experience is identical.
In 2017 Microsoft acquired AltspaceVR, a social VR app where people can meet virtually, attend conferences and meetups, and in May 2020 due to conditions imposed by COVID-19, they conducted MixeReality Dev Days in Altspace and a lot of developers joined to talk and communicate on new advancements of MixedReality at Microsoft as well as announcing the date for restocking the market with Hololens2. Another interesting event at this event was the introduction of Microsoft Maquette is a VR application for prototyping in VR for both VR and AR applications that shows how serious this company is in investing in VR/AR.
Later in the ending days of May 2020, Microsoft backed another event at Altspace for launching the HP Reverb G2 VR headset that supports Windows Mixed Reality as well as SteamVR, from the powerful and popular gaming platform. This collaboration is also another clue for predicting a serious market competition in VR products in near future.
With a simple search for VR design keywords, what you would find will be mostly the videos from the Google Daydream team. In 2014, Google introduced Google Cardboard which was simply fold-out cardboard with a couple of optical lenses into which a smartphone is inserted. The cardboard was so cheap that everyone could have achieved an experience in VR with their smartphone at the lowest price. Though it seemed to be a bold move in the democratization of VR, it couldn’t make an impact on advancing the position of VR technology in the public. Between the years 2015 to 2017, we can find very good content for designing for VR from the Daydream team on Youtube presented at the annual Google I/O conferences. Also in November 2016, Google launched the Daydream VR headset (No cardboard anymore). In 2018, right before the Google I/O conference, Lenovo announced the release of its standalone 6DOF VR headset (the Mirage Solo) that used the Daydream platform and didn’t require a smartphone to use. However, in that year, you can only find one talk on Accessibility for AR and VR at Google I/O, and in 2019, you cannot find anything from Daydream at their conference and in October that year, Google confirms to “The Verge” the discontinuation of the Daydream View VR headset because of “the lack of broad consumer or developer adoption” and it seems that as Ben Lang says, “Google’s focus has clearly shifted toward augmented reality”.
As always, what we can find about Apple, is mostly rumors about secret projects in VR/AR. However, two things are clear. First, in June 2017, Apple launched the Beta version of an AR development kit named ARKit, and later in October (2017), Tim Cook, the CEO, announced that he is not interested in VR as much as he is in AR. However, in May 2020, Apple confirmed the acquisition of the VR company NextVR, which specializes in recording live events like concerts and sports matches.
These facts and some rumors show the special interest of Apple in AR technology, but also the acquisition of NextVR in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made people around the world isolate for an unpredicted amount of time, shows that apple sees opportunities in the VR market and wants to hold afoot there.
Sony is one of the first and most popular VR headset producer but its main focus on game industry and developing VR for gaming consoles, doesn’t make this company so influential on other markets.
HTC, the producer of once popular HTC Vive, stopped production of its headsets for consumer market and decided to focus on enterprise market.
HP has also launched its new tethered VR headset, HP Reverb G2, in 2020 in partnership with Microsoft and SteamVR. However, we have to wait and see if that headset can compete in market with Oculus Quest 2 that Facebook launched in September 2020.