Microsoft’s recent release of the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, with virtual and augmented reality built in, is a big moment. Microsoft was one-half of the duo with Intel – nicknamed Wintel - that during the 1990s made business computing a mass movement. Windows headsets paired with x86 PCs also promises this mass-market for augmented reality. Only this time, the field is substantially different.
The potential of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) is how changing the way organisations think. This is seeing technology firms respond, with companies like Asus, Dell, Hewlett Packard and others delivering dedicated servers and workstations created around VR and AR. Today, Google, Facebook’s Oculus and Sony bring an intense element of competition that was missing when Wintel succeeded in framing the business-computing paradigm two decades ago. Today, users and their development teams who will build code for a new generation of virtual and augmented reality interfaces have more platforms and more tools to pick from. Question is: which option should they choose?
To begin with, not everybody is offering exactly the same type of – let’s call it – digital, visual experience.
First, there’s VR. This is where users are immersed in a three-dimensional virtual world, usually via a headset, whereas AR integrates virtual objects with the real world. While VR is great for entertainment, it’s Augmented Reality that commands more business interest thanks to many potential uses in sectors such as design, engineering, architecture and construction, healthcare, and virtual conferencing. The ability to prototype in real-world space without the expense of constructing physical models enables faster and less expensive design, for example.
The simplest form of AR is where virtual images are superimposed on live images from a camera. This is entertaining, but of limited use, since the virtual images have no awareness of the space they are in. True AR includes the ability to map physical surfaces into the virtual world so that virtual objects can rest on physical tables, for example, or bounce off walls. This is compute-intensive and normally requires multiple cameras, which is why AR has high system requirements. So who is doing what in AR and VR? Here is a quick look at some of the key players, in alphabetical order.
Apple has ARKit, which is a developer SDK supported by iOS 11, as found in the new iPhone X. ARKit combines camera and motion data to map physical spaces, a feature Apple calls Virtual Inertial Odometry. An ARKit application lets users place virtual objects in the world as seen through the display of an iPhone or iPad. This is compute intensive, which is why it requires at least an Apple A9 processor.
An advantage of ARKit is that no headset is required. Apple devices tend to get updated quickly, promising a large installed base for developers to target.
Facebook has its own VR/AR platform under the Oculus brand. The Oculus Rift is a VR headset for PCs now priced at $399. Coming in early 2018 and priced at $199, the Oculus Go is a standalone VR headset running Android, which can play VR content from on-board storage. Facebook is also talking up Rift as a business tool, with a new $900 Oculus Rift for Business bundle which includes the headset, Touch controllers and remote sensors.
As an early contender, Facebook has enjoyed a head start with Rift. Its main focus is entertainment though, and although it has plans for AR, it is behind the competition.
Google has been experimenting with VR and AR for some time. The company developed Google Glass, a head-mounted wearable computer and display, back in 2013. In AR terms it was crude though, and people found it intrusive, though it is finding new life [https://blog.x.company/a-new-chapter-for-glass-c7875d40bf24] as a means for factory workers to look up information hands-free.
The main effort now is an Android SDK called ARCore, announced in August 2017. Now in preview, ARCore uses similar principles to Apple’s ARKit, combining camera and motion tracking data to enable applications to place virtual objects or other information integrated with the physical world. ARKit seems to be replacing/evolving an earlier project called Tango.
Google also has a VR headset called Daydream, and has announced standalone Daydream headsets built in partnership with HTC and Lenovo. The company’s big advantage is the reach of Android. However, currently that is not as great as it first appears, because of the limited number of sufficiently powerful smartphones. ARCore is currently supported only on Google Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL and Samsung Galaxy S8.
What about Microsoft? The Redmond company’s plans are based on two device families, an older AR project called HoloLens combined with a more recent, mainly VR project called Windows Mixed Reality.
HoloLens, first shipped in early 2016, is a standalone headset running Windows 10 and equipped with numerous sensors, including a depth camera, four additional still cameras, a video camera, 4 microphones and an ambient light sensor. HoloLens has a customer CPU, or HPU (Holographic Processing Unit), for power-efficient processing of the data from the sensors. The company has announced a future version of the HPU which will include an “AI co-processor” to take advantage of Deep Neural Networks. HoloLens costs $5,000 for a commercial bundle, or $3,000 for a developer edition.
Windows Mixed Reality headsets, which shipped with the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, are much cheaper VR headsets, bundled with handheld controllers. Whereas HoloLens is standalone, a Mixed Reality headset is a twin display equipped with cameras to enable inside-out tracking, which is the ability to track the user’s position without needing to place external sensors in the environment.
Windows 10 Mixed Reality is more than just the headsets. Users can blend virtual objects with the real world simply by running the Mixed Reality Portal app on any Windows 10 device with a camera. Developers can build applications for Mixed Reality using the Windows SDK and emulators for HoloLens and immersive (Mixed Reality) headsets. Needless to say, a high-end PC and GPU is recommended – the company suggests a 6th generation Core i7 or 6-core AMD Ryzen 5, together with a well specified DirectX 12 capable GPU.
Microsoft has a couple of advantages in the AR space, particularly for business users. Windows still dominates in business computing, despite inroads by Apple and Google. In addition, partner support means wide promotion of its efforts. Vendors offering Mixed Reality headsets include a line up for familiar names from the Intel x86-PC world: Asus, Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Samsung. Integration with the Windows SDK means developers are well supported; there is also a range of tutorials, ideal for getting a feel for the technology.
Against that, the company’s failure in smartphones leaves it at a disadvantage for ubiquitous mobile AR (though there are possibilities for Windows 10 tablets). The new immersive headsets suffer from lack of content, though this will improve when Steam VR comes on board.
Making sense of the AR wars
The enthusiasm of the tech industry for VR and AR is understandable, since it has the potential to drive hardware upgrades as well as enabling new and enticing application scenarios.
That said, the market is at an early stage. The array of technology choices is giving corporate developers pause: they are wary of investing in platforms that may fail or change beyond recognition. Tech companies, meanwhile, are hedging their bets with support for multiple platforms, such as Samsung with its own existing Android-based Gear VR headset plus the newly announced Windows Mixed Reality headset, the HMD Odyssey.
Ultimately, it’ll make sense for user organisations and the developers who’ll code the visual experiences to back systems with the most reach. In the final analysis, it will likely be the big platform initiatives from Apple, Google and Microsoft that’ll have a longer life than more independent projects.
This article was supported by: Asus