One of the must-have audience-grabbing attractions this year at many of the MWC booths was AR/VR devices. A slew of AR/VR products were announced and showcased this year in Barcelona: the Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, LG 360 VR, Epson Moverio BT-300, Vuzix and others. A clear indicator that this is not just hype around the current “cool-factor” and has some real use cases is McDonald’s newly issued happy meal which turns into a VR box.
Another good indicator of the market potential is the amount of money pouring into this technology. According to market researchers, investments in AR/VR technologies have already exceeded $1.1 billion in the first two months of 2016. The secretive company Magic Leap is by far the leader, responsible for about three quarters of that sum. Meanwhile, basically all we, the general public, know about it is this demo video. A separate research projects VR device shipments to surpass 50 million units by 2020, meaning dramatic growth during next few years.
The Many Flavors of Head Mounted Displays
The head mounted displays (HMD) come in a wide variety of flavors, from a cardboard box that functions as a cradle for your smartphone on the low-end, to a sophisticated headset that plugs into a high performance PC on the high-end. In both of these cases, the actual HMD relies heavily on a separate device, which can be a major limiting factor. In the case of the wired connection to a PC, the drawbacks are clear. This requires the user to be in a static location, and significantly limits the possibilities of applications. In the case of the cradle, there are a few drawbacks. Although some of the designs have gotten quite sleek, fancy matte plastic still can’t hide the fact that these things are quite bulky. More importantly, there is the issue of draining the battery of the phone, which, after all, is still a communication tool. Another drawback that I experienced, after the conference when I gave my kids a try using my compatible smartphone, while I was impressed by the level of engagement, I found myself suspended from calls, emails and texts for a few hours, and got my phone back drained of power.
My conclusion from all of this is that AR/VR needs to cut its cords and become more independent in order to take the next step. The edge devices need to do more processing themselves, and become untethered from the other bigger devices. At the same time, the devices need to be lighter, more compact and more comfortable to wear and use. This requires small and effective processing units tightly coupled into the devices that can handle the kind of processing required by AR/VR and also consume very low power, to meet the constraints on battery size. Although we didn’t get to see it at MWC, it seems that Microsoft’s Hololens is going in that direction. It should be exciting to try it out when hits the market end of this month. In the meantime, this promotional video looks pretty promising.
Friends with Benefits: The AR/VR Ecosystems
The same notion goes for the entire ecosystem of devices that accompany the headsets. It’s clear that most of the big players are attempting to build an ecosystem that will give users added value, while hooking them into their compatible products. The LG concept of G5 and Friends probably exemplifies this the best. Each device, or friend, is a component in the ecosystem that facilitates overall user experience: a camera grip with extra battery pack, a wide angle lens that boosts the phone camera, and the LG 360 cam, for 360 degree photography. Samsung also announced their 360 camera, the Gear 360, which compliments the Gear VR, virtual reality headset. Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance at MWC to promote the Samsung products, which are powered by the Facebook owned Oculus Rift technology and also mentioned the importance of generating content using 360 degrees photography. The way I see it, for this concept of friends to work, each friend has to be independent, so that they can be enjoyed separately and together with some additional benefits. Again, this means that each friend should have its own power supply, and its own processing power to efficiently perform its function.
The Next Phase: Fully Untethered AR/VR
Although we’ve been seeing and hearing about AR/VR technologies for quite a few years, it still is a nascent technology, with plenty of room to develop and grow. I still haven’t seen an application that is an absolute “must have” or that looks like it would significantly improve some aspect of our lives. But, those applications are pretty easy to imagine, and are surely not far off. In order to get there, I think that the cables must be cut, the bulkiness must be eliminated the battery life needs to be extended, and then the imagination can take flight. AR/VR technology has taken a very big step forward recently, but once these devices become untethered, we can expect to see a real leap.
Moreover, click here to watch CEVA’s webinar about implementing machine vision in embedded systems, including a deep dive into CDNN.