It is hard to believe that the holiday season is upon us and that means that it is almost CES time again. CES marks so many new announcements as well as the unveiling of advances for technology that is truly gaining ground, such as autonomous vehicles, drones and augmented/mixed/virtual reality or, in some cases just the opposite, flash-in-the-pan trends such as 3D TV are also evident by their sudden absence.
This year we have seen significant advances in many technologies including basic computer components such as CPUs and GPUs with finer lines and spaces, allowing literally billions of additional transistors in a chip. CPUs have gone to multiple cores with the new AMD Threadripper and the even newer Intel I9 CPU offering up to 18 core processors. The new NVIDIA GTX 1080Ti GPUs are amazing in their abilities and these in themselves enable some astounding advances in key end user technologies.
At CES, I will be trying to focus on three key areas (although I am sure I will get distracted and if that happens I will report on those distractions, I promise). The areas I plan to focus on are augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR), and then autonomous driving and 3D/additive fabrication focusing on PCB fab.
Of the three, one of the most fun for someone like me, who enjoys building a computer more than playing golf, is the rapid advance in AR/VR and MR, which is the focus of this article. For years I have felt and even stated in previous articles that the holodeck from Star Trek was coming and that it would not take another 200 years, that even those of us that have been around for decades would be astounded by what we will see in our lifetimes.
Rather than me repeating here the difference between VR, MR and AR once again, I suggest that if you want the details you might just wish to reread my comments from last year[1,2]. Suffice it to say that, even since last CES, there have been great strides in both the available hardware for performance, capability and lowered price as well as the applications for industrial, business-related and entertainment that can make use of this technology.
Figure 1: Various VR headsets.
As we expect new announcements at CES, perhaps an interim report on what is now available and what costs as of mid-December 2017 might be of interest just to set a new ground floor for the high rise that is being planned. We have come a long way just since this time last year, so read on.
In the last few years, initial virtual reality hardware has been available. The first units included the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The initial units were somewhat expensive and somewhat limited but over the last few years the now Facebook-owned Oculus has become more capable with more applications and uses as well as far less expensive. Today you can get one for $399 which is a $100 reduction announced just a few months ago and far less expensive than a year ago; the additional $100 reduction was announced just before Microsoft released it latest update supporting VR, but more about that later. You will need a moderately powerful PC to run the unit with good results but the power of PCs over the last year, especially with the new graphics cards, has greatly improved the performance of the Oculus as well as all the other, newer units that are now available.
The second unit that has been available for a while is the HTC Vive.
Figure 2: HTC Vive.
It is my opinion that the Vive is more capable and has more available programs. It has some unique features when compared to the Oculus, such as being able to set a virtual wall or limit to the area you wander in your virtual world. The computer requirements are like the Rift but the HTC unit is much more expensive. While its price has come down significantly in the last year as of this writing, it will still cost you almost $600 for the basic unit.
With the release of the Microsoft Windows 10 Creators update a few months ago, they also included in it significant support for VR/MR/AR. With what is the most popular operating system globally now fully supporting it was obvious that our choices, uses and cost to get involved would all rapidly improve, and in fact, that has happened. It appears that Microsoft has partnered in some fashion with Acer, Dell, Samsung, Lenovo and HP. All of these units are reasonable priced in the $399 to $499 range, all of them work with moderately powered computers, and all are fully compatible with the Windows 10 Creators edition. There are some very interesting applications ranging from touring ancient sites to playing games such a Halo (quite realistic and immersive) as well as watching movies in immersive 3D with you feeling as if you are in the movie. Other uses include virtual tourism, health care diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation, skill training in so many fields, control of robots (both here on Earth as well as on Mars), education, law enforcement and just plain on-line shopping (but greatly enhanced shopping).
In addition to the two pioneers, Oculus and HTC and the Creators Edition choices, there are the low-end units such as Google cardboard and others, very low cost, run by a smartphone and very limited, almost toy like and far less immersive, but for under $10 you can get a taste of very basic low-end VR.
Figure 3: Google Cardboard.
If you are interested in seeing what the newest units can do, Microsoft has a demo set up in their stores. You can take a tour and compare the various units using most of the gear presently available and the various Creators Edition available software. I recently was given the opportunity to have a detailed demonstration. I chose two different scenarios, one a detailed tour of ancient Chichen Itza during a festival during the middle ages. I wandered around, observed and almost took part. I also chose a tour of a high-tech home as well as to take a combat training course getting ready to fight some very scary aliens in Halo. Overall it was very immersive, hard to describe unless you have experienced it.
Figure 4: Dan Feinberg using VR.
I did the exact same tour using all the new MS partners and I found that while they were all similar, I did have some preferences. As far as comfort and ease of use, I found the Acer unit was my first choice, with the Lenovo second.
As far as my perceived performance, response and reaction to my actions and movements, my favorite was the Samsung with the Acer and Lenovo close seconds. In the past, I have also used the HTC Vive and I recall it also being very good. None of the units were deficient, some had better features, and some were less comfortable after 15 minutes or so of use, but any of them are amazing to use especially with the new applications becoming available.
Regarding hardware, the big unknown is still the Microsoft HoloLens. This unit is available at a rather high price to developers; it is reported to have some very advanced features such as gaze, gesture and voice control. It seems to focus on mixed reality allowing you to put a virtual object into your real world and they manipulate it. You can now buy a used HoloLens on Ebay for only $2000 or so.
The key point is, with the Creators Edition, Windows mixed reality differs from the previous generation in a number of ways. The hardware requirements are lower, the ecosystem includes some exclusive content that not compatible with last year’s Vive or Oculus. One more exciting point, especially for gamers, Windows MR supports SteamVR, although only in beta format for now.
I expect that we will see the next generation of the VR/MR/AR ecosystem at CES this year. I already have some invites that indicate that the rate of development is about to accelerate. This is very different from 3D TV; the advent of VR and related technologies will have a very dramatic effect on the way we live, travel, entertain ourselves and learn in the decade to come. I hope to be able to share some exciting information next month after CES.
- Disruptive Technologies—VR, AR and Star Trek, by Dan Feinberg, The PCB Magazine, September 2016.
- CES 2017: Disruptive Technologies, by Dan Feinberg, I-Connect007 Daily Newsletter, January 16, 2017.
Dan Feinberg is a contributing technology editor for I-Connect007.