The Mass Market VR Headset with Oculus Go

I always look for great deals in Virtual Reality gadgets  but I have never committed to any platform nor technology. The high-end VR experiences requires expensive hardware and they are somewhat cumbersome and the other end of spectrum, the low-end VR experiences are fragile, low quality and also cumbersome in their own way. But in the 2018 Black Friday deals, I found something that surprised me with a good balance of great VR experience, packaged in a convenient format and reasonable price point leading me to believe that we have a viable model to mass market VR this time.

Virtual Reality has been with us for a long time but it became more viable and mass market oriented in recent years with advances in technology and content creation and distribution.  We could consider that one of the first ventures in the VR space is the stereoscopic visual simulator - they look like ski goggles but you can insert a disc that contains small films with images. They provide a static 3D view of the pictures.

But those ViewMaster or similar toys are limited in their experience. The content is limited by the number of "disks" is available in the market, the images are static and it requires a light source in order to view those pictures.

Moving beyond toys, Virtual Reality already has a long history in the simulation space. Flight simulators for pilots, medical VR for medical staff and simulators for military personnel are use cases that leveraged the use of Virtual Reality technology but they are narrow experiences and self-contained, meaning that the hardware, software and content have only one single use case. That also leads to higher costs and it leads to faster obsolescence.  You cannot repurpose a flight simulator hardware to a medical use case and vice-versa.

The ultimate Virtual Reality experience is illustrated in the movie The Matrix. In the movie, humanity loses to the rise of the machines and people are enslaved to produce electricity to the machines. The electricity is produced by stimulating human minds via the Matrix that simulates the real world to the enslaved humans. In that case, my interpretation is that the VR experience is stimulated directly into the brain, therefore, all the five senses are simulated providing the ultimate VR experience.

I'm not sure if that is necessarily beneficial to humanity to reach that kind of level of VR, but our current technology improved significantly and the cost to develop VR solutions have dropped allowing the masses to experiment and tinker with Virtual Reality that is flexible, more convenient, and reasonably immersive for many use cases; moving beyond the initial sets of applications in the flight simulator, medical and military spaces.

The latest round of evolution in VR came with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR sets. Both products were launch around 2014-2015 but companies only made a bigger push to market in 2016. Not only more years of development were required to refine the initial products but also content had to be generated so it avoids the trap of creating hardware with no useful or entertaining content to support the sustainability of those VR ecosystems.

I remember spotting for VR deals in 2016 during the Black Friday season but the price points were still extremely high for an unproven solution. Before 2017, the VR headsets require a high-end PC that would cost around $2000 and an additional cost of the VR headset, controllers and other accessories around $1000 totaling $3000 or more just to get into this initial phase of the VR as we know today. With that high price point, I could not convince myself to try that technology out and the number of content was just starting to grow.

Then, Microsoft Mixed Reality headsets came in 2017 proving an interesting advance in the VR space. HTC Vive and Oculus Rift requires multiple cables and sensors to make it work, the cables are needed to connect to the PC's powerful graphic cards and also to the PC itself for processing the sensor, graphic and application data (e.g.: game logic, 3D graphics, etc.). The Mixed Reality headsets, produced by many different manufacturers, still requires to connect to the USB 3.0 and the HDMI ports but it does not need extra sensors to be placed in the living room. The headset contains sensors that track the location of the controllers. The controllers have dots that indicates to the headset which position those controllers are in the space. Also, the PC requirements are lower meaning that you can run VR without powerful computers but in detriment of a slight decrease the in the resolution of the graphics and also a slight loss of position accuracy. But those changes make the system more convenient and cheaper for consumers.

I tried those Mixed Reality headsets in Microsoft Stores and they are fun. It's a step forward compared to the 1st generation of VR headsets but the issue of having the headset still tethered to the PC leaves a lot of rooms for improvements. From price perspective, instead of having to spend $3000 to get started, I could find some Black Friday deals in 2017 for under $800 including the PC Laptop, the VR Mixed Reality headset and the controllers. Still, I didn't buy the platform because there was not a lot of content to compensate. The only game that I really wanted to play was Space Pirate Trainer, very fun 3D game where you use both hands and arms to bring guns and shields to deal with the space drones that shoots lasers at you. I was still not convinced to shell out money to try VR.

Moving to 2018 Black Friday, I had left VR in the back of my mind for a while and I only re-started to think about it when the promotion season came. I searched for Oculus and VR on Amazon and I found out that Oculus was giving a promotion on its headsets. At Amazon, I saw the device selling for only $229 CAD and the first thing I did was to check the Oculus Go app. From there, I saw that there are many content from videos and video games. Oculus said that they have over 1000 apps and they reached that critical mass also from the efforts of Samsung Gear VR. As I was convinced that there were enough content so I could enjoy VR experiences, the next thought was about pricing. For $229, that is the cost of a cheap smartphone, when we compared the Oculus Go headset, I think that is a good deal and let me explain why.

From the consumer perspective, the Oculus Go is a self contained un-tethered Virtual Reality headset. It does not need a computer nor a smartphone to make it work - the Samsung Gear VR, the Google Cardboard or Daydream headsets require a smartphone to power the VR headset. For Oculus Go, we only need the smartphone to set it up. Once, it is set, you don't need a phone or anything anymore. It also comes with a controller so you can select and move things in the VR space. Also, the sound is coming from the head band, so there is no need to put headphones and the headset at the same time - meaning that unit is lighter than other systems. From the setup and hardware perspective, it is a very convenient virtual reality headset that comes with everything you need to have an immersive experience.

The current simplified overview of the VR market products:

High-end VR Mid-end VR Low-end VR
HTC VIVE Windows Mixed Reality Google Cardboard
HTC VIVE Pro Samsung Gear VR 3rd Party Cardboard Like headsets
Oculus Rift Oculus Go
Google DayDream

The Oculus Go stands out of the crowd from the fact that is totally un-tethered and the experience is close to the Windows Mixed Reality headsets but without the burden of having to have a computer and cables. It has its own short coming such as limited freedom of movement and one controller but my perspective is that people are looking for passive-immersive experiences and less of intense full body movement and immersion experience at this point; so having less is more at this point.

Let's review Oculus Go 32GB and Motorola Moto G6 32GB high level hardware so we can have an idea of what that hardware stands for:

Hardware Type Oculus Go Motorola Moto G6
Display 2560 x 1440 pixels 2160 x 1080 pixels
Processor Qualcomm's Snapdragon 821 (2016) Qualcomm SDM450 Snapdragon 450
Storage 32GB 32GB
Wifi Yes Yes
Price $269 CAD (after Black Friday) $289.72 CAD

When we compare a phone to a VR headset, the core components such as the display, processor and storage are very close. Obviously, the cellular components are not present in the VR, and the phone does not have a controller nor the headset case as found in the VR. From the surface level, the cost of the hardware is reasonable based on what's out there in the market.

For the price that I ended up purchasing at $229, I think it was a good deal to try out the VR experience. The Oculus store may not be the Apple store but it has solid apps from YouTube VR, to specific 3D games. Also because of Black Friday, there were a lot of apps with 50% discount so I could buy a lot of them on the cheap and try them out.

In summary, I think Oculus Go with a lower price point is definitely a must for those who are still on the fence to try out Virtual Reality. We are seeing a VR solution that is closer to the mass market type of product given its convenience and price point; also it is building a reasonable app store ecosystem with high quality apps. You should definitely try out!

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