Virtual reality tech floods the 2016 CES from video gaming to vehicle tech

virtual-reality-headsetThe 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has come and gone and once again the media world is ablaze with details about the coming generation of electronic gadgetry. Here at IPWatchdog, our coverage of this event over the past few years has helped us identify consumer tech trends which continue to develop over the following months. In 2014, we took note of the emergence of Internet of Things developers creating a variety of smart products for the home and beyond. Last year, an unusually strong showing from the automotive sector gave us our first glimpse of autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles, a technology which became a large topic of discussion on our site over the past twelve months.

This year’s edition of the consumer trade show featured many companies which had placed a firm focus on the development of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies. Modern-day virtual reality technologies can perhaps be traced back to American computer scientist Ivan Sutherland who created the world’s earliest stereoscopic headset, the Sword of Damocles, in the late 1960s. With the long-awaited Oculus Rift virtual reality headset about to hit consumer markets in 2016, this year’s CES became a large opportunity for rival firms to stake their claim before the consumer market for virtual reality technologies begins to mature.

Oculus VR, a subsidiary of Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB), announced that the Rift virtual reality headset would begin shipments in late March at a retail price of $599. However, the Rift is not a stand-alone device as it requires a fairly powerful PC platform having an NVIDIA GTX 970 or AMD R9 290 graphics card and an Intel i5-4590 processor equivalent running Windows 7 SP1; Oculus also recommends 8 gigabytes of random access memory (RAM). Oculus will offer pre-orders for the Rift and a Rift-compatible PC for $1,499 starting in February. The Rift headset itself is comprised of a built-in display, microphone and headphones and the package comes with a stand-alone sensor for tracking the peripheral remote or Xbox One controller through which a user controls the virtual reality interface.

Although Oculus may have a commanding position in the virtual reality sector, this year’s CES was rife with contenders looking to unseat the VR leader. Taiwanese smartphone and tablet manufacturer HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) gave consumers a close look at its Vive virtual reality headset, which one reporter for TIME found to be incredibly engrossing in its immersive experience. The Vive requires a powerful PC to run its VR technologies, much like the Oculus Rift, both of which are designed to display images at about 90 frames per second. Pre-orders for the Vive will begin on February 29th, according to HTC executives.

The high-end gaming world may be rejoicing over the advent of such powerful virtual reality headsets. Those who don’t possess the computing platform to run either the Rift or the Vive may get their introduction to virtual reality through the Gear VR, a smartphone-based virtual reality headset developed by Samsung Electronics (KRX:005930). Gear VR, which was developed in part by Oculus, enables an owner of a Samsung Galaxy smartphone to snap in their device to enjoy an immersive experience for watching movies or playing video games. It retails online for $99 per unit, making it a much smaller tech investment and a more reasonable one for those who already own a Samsung phone. The Gear VR offered one of the more noteworthy virtual reality events at the recent CES when Samsung took about 2,000 CES attendees on a VR roller coaster ride which was aided by the use of 4-D special effect theater chairs. The company is also reportedly working on a controller for the Gear VR known as the Rink, although Samsung didn’t announce such a device at CES despite reports of the Rink being shown to some interested parties.

In the world of super affordable virtual reality options, nothing beats the open source hardware solution developed by Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) subsidiary Google, known as Google Cardboard. Anyone can download instructions for constructing a Cardboard viewer directly from the official site. Do-it-yourself techies can build the unit by assembling lenses, magnets, Velcro, one rubber band and, of course, corrugated cardboard; much like the Gear VR, Cardboard simply requires a user to strap in a smartphone and run VR-compatible apps. Google itself didn’t announce much in the way of news for the VR unit at CES but some developers using the platform turned heads, like Quantum Interface of Austin, TX. QI exhibited eye-tracking technology with the Cardboard that, coupled with motion detector sensors, would allow a vehicle driver to change radio stations or adjust music volume through motion gestures or even eye movement. Cardboard-compatible viewer developers Speck and I Am Cardboard also exhibited durable VR viewers for Google’s system. Readers may also be interested to know that Google separately announced an executive change that has Clay Bavor, Google’s erstwhile VP of product management, taking on an exclusive focus on virtual reality, so the tech company should be active in this sector over the coming months.

One company which was expected to make a bigger leap into the virtual reality waters during this CES was Sony Corporation (NYSE:SNE), but the Tokyo-based consumer tech developer was noticeably mum on the state of its current PlayStation VR development. Reports indicate that the PlayStation VR will work with the PlayStation 4 console, taking care of the power computing resources required to run virtual reality environments, and the unit will support multiplayer gaming. Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai has recently remarked that there are 100 different titles currently being developed by third-party video game companies which will utilize the PlayStation VR platform.

One of the more unique virtual reality headsets displayed at this year’s CES was the Glyph, produced by Redwood City, CA-based VR firm Avegant. The Glyph is unusual in that it can be worn over the eyes for an immersive video viewing experience or can be flipped up and worn as a conventional pair of headphones, allowing a user to experience only the audio. Avegant already had a successful Kickstarter round for the Glyph where it was able to raise more than $1.5 million to develop the consumer gadget. Reports indicate that the Glyph will begin to ship in the springtime for about $700 per unit.

Advances in virtual reality display technology aren’t worth much without the development of three-dimensional multimedia which can take advantage of those platforms. During CES, live-action VR broadcasting firm NextVR, headquartered in Laguna Beach, CA, announced a partnership with semiconductor developer Qualcomm Inc. (NASDAQ:QCOM) to optimize the NextVR video player for the Snapdragon 820 processor produced by Qualcomm for mobile devices. This video player technology would further enable VR equipment to take advantage of the smartphone platform instead of dedicated PC processing equipment. The press release for the announcement linked above notes that NextVR became the first virtual reality company to broadcast an NBA game last October. During CES, NextVR conducted a virtual reality broadcast of a live game between the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics, giving viewers a chance to immerse themselves in a virtual courtside environment.

Consumers would have the ability to record their own 3D video for virtual reality broadcasts if they owned a Vuze, a camera marketed as the first affordable VR camera by developer HumanEyes Technologies, headquartered in Jerusalem, Israel. The camera will retail for about $1,000 beginning in August of this year, which is much less than 3D cameras developed by Nokia and others that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The Vuze includes eight different cameras which can record panoramic 360-degree views and give an operator the ability to capture images useful in developing virtual reality scenes. Users can edit the multi-camera views together with Vuze Studio software coming in the product bundle, which also includes a tripod, selfie stick and head-mounted VR goggles.

Augmented reality (AR) environments, which utilize sensor and display technologies to create a real-world environment providing some digital immersiveness, were also showcased at CES and by some non-traditional names in tech. For instance, South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. (KRX:005380) displayed an AR system designed to quickly provide vehicle owners with helpful information from the owner’s manual. The AR system runs on a smartphone app that identifies components of a vehicle and can provide related tutorials on how to change oil or perform other maintenance tasks. Elsewhere in consumer automotive tech, German automaker BMW (ETR:BMW) unveiled a motorcycle helmet providing a heads-up display informing riders of RPM and gas levels while keeping their focus on the road; the AR technology was developed in partnership with holographic display company DigiLens of Sunnyvale, CA.

Other areas of consumer tech were also getting a boost from the development of augmented reality. The space measurement system Project Tango, another Google development, will be incorporated into a smartphone developed in partnership with Chinese tech firm Lenovo Group (HKG:0992). The smartphone comes with software development kit tools that would support applications for better navigation in indoor spaces or improved controls for drones. Another AR development kit was also showcased by Israeli firm Lumus. The Lumus DK-50 development kit supports the generation of high-resolution virtual images that can be overlaid on wearable eyeglass displays.


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