The Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign showed that there was a want for virtual reality to start making a comeback. However the other side of that equation, the ones who’d be delivering experiences through the VR platform, weren’t really prepared to capitalize on that. There are numerous reasons for this but mostly it comes down to consumer VR still being a nascent industry with the proper tooling still not there to make the experience seamless. Unfortunately it’s something of a chicken and egg problem: standards and tooling won’t fully emerge until there’s a critical mass of users and those users won’t appear until those standards are in place. This is why the high price of the Oculus Rift consumer model costs far more than its sticker price.
Many looked towards the Oculus Rift as the definitive VR headset, something which Oculus has obviously taken into account when designing it. Whilst I, as an early adopter of many pieces of technology, may appreciate the no-holds-barred approach for devices like this I know this limits broader appeal. Whilst this is sometimes a good strategy in order to get your production line stood up (ala Tesla when they produced the Roadster and then the Model S) the Oculus already had that in the previous two iterations of the dev kit. I think what many were expecting then was the Model T of VR headsets and what they got instead was a Rolls Royce Phantom.
However Oculus is no longer the only name in the game anymore with both the HTC VIVE PRE and the PlayStationVR headsets scheduled to come out in the first half of this year. Both of these are targetting at much more reasonable price point, although they admit that their headsets are not as premium as the Oculus Rift is. Whilst Oculus’ preorders may have surpassed their expectations I still feel that they alienated a good chunk of their market going for the price point that they did. For those who balked at the Oculus’ price the other two headsets could prove to be a viable alternative and that could spell trouble for Oculus.
Whilst Oculus won’t be going anywhere soon as a company (thanks entirely to the Facebook acquisition) they will likely struggle to cement their position as the market leader in the VR headset space. Indeed the higher price point, which according to Oculus is the bare minimum they can charge for it, won’t come down significantly until economies of scale kick in. Lower sales volumes means that takes much longer to come into effect and, potentially, HTC and Sony could be well on their way to mass produced headsets that are a fraction the cost of the Oculus.
In the end it comes down to which of the headsets provide a “good enough” experience for the most attractive price. There will always be a market for a premium version of a product however it’s rare that those models are the ones most frequently purchased. Oculus’ current price point puts it out of the reach of many, a gap which HTC and Sony will rush into fill in no short order. The next year will then become a heated battle for who takes the VR crown, showing which product strategy was the right one. For now my money is on the cheaper end of the spectrum and I’m waiting to be proved wrong.
It’s strange to think that just over 2 years ago that the idea of VR headsets was still something of a gimmick that was unlikely to take off. Then enter the Oculus Rift Kickstarter which managed to grab almost 10 times the funds it asked for and revamped an industry that really hadn’t seen much action since the late 90s. Whilst consumer level units are still a ways off it’s still shaping up to be an industry with robust competition with numerous competitors vying for the top spot. The latest of which comes to us via HTC who’ve partnered with Valve to deliver their Steam VR platform.
Valve partnering with another company for the hardware isn’t surprising as they let go a number of personnel in their hardware section not too long ago although their choice of partner is quite interesting. Most of the other consumer electronics giants have already made a play into the VR game: Samsung with Gear VR, Sony with Project Morpheus and Google with their (admittedly limited) Cardboard. So whilst I wouldn’t say that we’ve been waiting for HTC to release something it’s definitely not unexpected that they’d eventually make a play for this space. The fact that they’ve managed to partner with Valve, who already has major buy in with nearly all PC gamers thanks to Steam, is definitely a win for them and judging by the hardware it seems like Valve is pretty happy with the partnership too.
The HTC/Valve VR headset has been dubbed the Re Vive and looks pretty similar to the prototypes of the Oculus DK2. The specs are pretty interesting with it sporting 2, 1200 x 1080 screens which are capable of a 90hz refresh rate, well above what your standard computer monitor is capable of. The front is also littered with numerous sensors including your standard gyroscopes, accelerometers and a laser position tracker which all combine together to provide head tracking to 1/10th of a degree. There’s also additional Steam VR base stations which can provide full body tracking as well, allowing you to get up and move around in your environment.
There’s also been rumblings of additional “controllers’ that come with the headset although I’ve been unable to find any pictures of them or details on how they work. Supposedly they work to track your hand motions so you can interact with objects within the environment. Taking a wild guess here I think they might be based off something like the MYO as other solutions limit you to small spaces in order to do hand tracking properly whilst the MYO seems to fit more inline with the Re Vive’s idea of full movement tracking within a larger environment. I’ll be interested to see what their actual solution for this is as it has the potential to set Valve and HTC apart from everyone else who’s still yet to come up with a solution.
Suffice to say this piece of HTC kit has seen quite a bit of development work thrown into it, more than I think anyone had expected when this announcement was first made. It’ll be hard to judge the platform before anyone can get their hands on it as with all things VR you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you give it a go. The pressure really is now on to be the first to market a consumer level solution that works seamlessly with games that support VR as all these prototypes and dev kits are great but we’re still lacking that one implementation that really sells the idea. HTC and Valve are well positioned to do that but so is nearly everyone else.
I used to think I wasn’t your typical consumer, what with my inclination for all things tech especially those with a dedicated modding community. Pretty much every device I have in my house has been modified in some way so that I can do things that the manufacturer didn’t intend for me to do, extending the life of many of those devices considerably. Whilst consumers like me used to be small in number, especially when compared to the total market, it seems like ever since Android exploded in popularity that the modding community is now a force to be reckoned with. So much so that even handset manufacturers are beginning to bow to their demands.
I started thinking along these lines back when some of my close mates were talking about Motorola’s super handset, the Atrix. Feature wise its an amazing phone with enough processing power under the hood to give netbooks a good run for their money. A few of my mates were wholly sold on getting one once they were released however reports began came in that the boot loader on the Atrix was locked, removing the possibility of being able to run custom ROMs and some of the more useful features. It really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise since Motorola has a policy of locking their devices (which is why the Xoom’s unlocked bootloader was odd) but still many people were sold on the device prior to finding out its limitations. The modding community didn’t just vote with their wallets this time around however, they made sure Motorola was aware of just how many customers they were losing.
Motorola, for reasons unknown, decided to put up a poll on their Facebook page asking their fans what apps they’d most like to see their developers working on next. The response was overwhelming with nearly every request being for them to unlock the bootloader. Not a week after these poll results went viral did Motorola issued a statement that they’d be changing their policy to allow users to unlock handsets, as long as the carriers approved it. Whilst that’s yet to happen for any of their current handsets (they’ve alluded to late this year) it did show that the modding community has become very important to the handset manufacturers, more so than I had ever thought they would.
HTC, long known for there awesomely hackable handsets, seems to be going in the opposite direction to Motorola seemingly ignoring the lessons to be learned from them. Whilst they had never made it as easy as say the Google Nexus lines of phones they were always able to be unlocked should you be willing to take the risk. Back in march I wrote about how their Thunderbolt handset was by far the most locked down device we had seen from HTC ever, warning that doing so would be akin to poisoning the well they drink from. More recently it came to light that two of their newest handsets, the Sensation and EVO 3D, would also come with locked bootloaders similar to that of the Thunderbolt. They have since come back saying that they’ll be working to make their handsets more hacker friendly once again, although many are quick to point out that they might not have much say in that matter.
You see the unfortunate truth is that all handsets are at the mercy of the carriers as without them they’re basically useless. Google encountered this very problem when they released the Nexus One as they had to offer both the subsidized version through the carriers as well as their original vision of selling it just through their online store. Indeed they had originally wanted to sell the Nexus One for as little as $99 unlocked paying the subsidy themselves. That plan didn’t last very long once they started talking to the carriers and the best option they could offer was the $179 version with a 2 year contract, a far cry from their original vision. So whilst I applaud Motorola and HTC’s commitment to keeping handsets hacker friendly the carriers could very well scuttle the idea long before it hits implementation, but only time will tell with that.
Honestly I’m very surprised at the recent turn of events that has led to these quick about faces from the big handset manufacturers. Sure I believed that the modding communities were catalysts for the success that they had enjoyed but I didn’t think they had enough sway to get a corporation to change its wicked ways. It shows that a decent percentage of people are committed to the idea of openness and freedom to use their devices as they see fit and whilst it might be an uphill battle against the carriers we at least have some powerful allies on our side, maybe even enough to make Google’s original Nexus vision come true one day.
A company is always reliant on its customers, they’re the sole reason that they continue to exist. For small companies customers are even more critical as losing one for them is far more likely to cause problems than when a larger company loses one of theirs. Many recent start ups have hinged on their early adopters not only being closely tied to the product so that they form a shadow PR department but also many of them hobbyist developers, providing additional value to their platform at little to no cost to them. Probably the most successful example of this is Twitter who’s openness with their API fostered the creation of many features (retweets, @ replies, # tags) that they had just never seen before. It seems however that they think the community has gone far enough, and they’re willing to take it from here.
It was about two weeks ago when Twitter updated their terms of service and guidelines for using their API. The most telling part about this was the section that focused on Twitter clients where they explicitly stated that developers should no longer focus on making new clients, and should focus on other verticals:
The gist of what Sarver said is this; Twitter won’t be asking anyone to shut down just as long as they stick within the required api limits. New apps can be built but it doesn’t recommend doing so as it’s ‘not good long term business’. When asked why it wasn’t good long term business, Sarver said because “that is the core area we investing in. There are much bigger, better opportunities within the ecosystem”
Sarver insists this isn’t Twitter putting the hammer down on developers but rather just “trying to be as transparent as possible and give the guidance that partners and developers have been asking for.”
To be honest with you they do have a point. If you take a look at the usage breakdown by client type you’ll notice that 43% of Twitter’s usage comes from non official apps, and diving into that shows that the vast majority of unofficial clients don’t drive that much traffic with 4 apps claiming the lion’s share of Twitter traffic. A developer looking to create a new client would be running up against a heavy bit of inertia trying to differentiate themselves from the pack of “Other Apps” that make up the 24% of Twitter’s unofficial app usage, but that doesn’t mean someone might not be capable of actually doing it. Hell the official client wasn’t even developed by Twitter in the first place, they just bought the most popular one and made it free for everyone to use.
Twitter isn’t alone in annoying its loyal developer following. HTC recently debuted one of their new handsets, the Thunderbolt. Like many HTC devices its expected that there will be a healthy hacking scene around the new device, usually centered on th xda-developers board. Their site has really proved to be invaluable to the HTC brand and I know I stuck with my HTC branded phones for much longer than I would have otherwise thanks to the hard work these guys put in. However this particular handset is by far one of the most locked down on the market, requiring all ROMs to be signed with a secret key. Sure they’ve come up against similar things in the past but this latest offering seems to be a step above what they normally put in, signalling this a shot across the bow of those who would seek to run custom firmware on their new HTC.
In both cases these companies had solid core products that the community was able to extend upon which provided immense amounts of value that came at zero cost to them. Whilst I can’t attribute all the success to the community it’s safe to say that the staggering growth that these companies experienced was catalyzed by the community they created. To suddenly push aside those who helped you reach the success you achieved seems rather arrogant but unfortunately it’s probably to be expected. Twitter is simply trying to grab back some of the control of their platform so they can monetize it since they’re still struggling to make decent revenues despite their huge user base. HTC is more than likely facing pressure from carriers to make their handsets more secure, even if that comes at the cost of annoying their loyal developer community.
Still in both these situations I feel like there would have been a better way to achieve the goals they sought without poisoning the well that once sustained them. Twitter could easily pull a Facebook maneuver and make all advertising come through them directly, which they could do via their own in house system or by simply buying a company like Ad.ly. HTC’s problem is a little more complex but I still can’t understand why the usual line of “if you unlock/flash/hack it, you’re warranty’s void” wasn’t enough for them. I’m not about to say that these moves signal the down fall of either company but it’s definitely not doing them any favors.
Let me premise this post with this one fact: I’m a confessed, huge, blubbering Sony fanboy. Ever since they suckered me in with the original Playstation I’ve been at early morning/midnight launch of their consoles, and I’ve happily parted with many dollars in order to get the console on the first day. I’ve never regretted doing this, especially with Sony’s habit of releasing consoles riddle with delicious exploits for the hackers to get their hands on. That, and they’ve now developed a nasty habit of removing features from their products in order to make them cheaper, something which I feel is a bit rough and doesn’t do them any favours PR wise.
So of course when it came time for work to replace my phone, you can probably guess who I turned to first to see if there was a suitable replacement.
Sony had decided that it needed to step into the arena of Windows smart phones and it’s first entry attempt is the Xperia X1 (which is sitting beside me as I type this). Sony can’t take all the credit for the handset however, as the internals of the handset were designed by smartphone giant HTC, who make pretty much every Windows smart phone you see despite the branding on the outside. This was a smart move by Sony as they whilst they have a small foothold in the laptop and UMPC market their experience with Windows based phones is nil, and established companies are typically risk adverse when it comes to cracking new markets.
They can take credit for a lot of other things to do with the handset. The overall design of the handset is stunning, with the body being mostly metal with plastic chrome flashing around the outside. This is one of the things that drew me to the handset initially, as it’s something different to the typical shiny black plastic you see on handsets these days. The arc-slider design, whilst by no means revolutionary, certainly adds a nice touch to the handset and helps to keep the device a bit slimmer then it’s counterparts.
Sony, as with most Windows mobile using companies, decided to rethink the default mobile UI and put their own system in. Traditionally this came as a re-skinning but many are now going for a complete overhaul of the default UI. The Xperia has a slight twist though, and that comes through the idea of panels.
The basic idea is that you can change between different default modes of operation for your phone. It’s actually not a bad idea and there are many panels out for things like Youtube and Facebook. They’re definitely a step up in terms of design when compared to the normal UI as they can take advantage of the IR trackpad at the base of the phone. The fish panel is a gimmick more then anything, but it’s a great thing to show people so they get a feel for what the phone is capable of.
What really suckered me in to this phone was is that everything just plain works. Every Windows mobile phone I’ve had has suffered from at least 1 or 2 shop stopping glitches that caused the phone to be next to useless around 50% of the time. My first ever phone, the O2 Atom Exec routinely suffered stability problems. After having it serviced (and the screen replaced, due to a drunken attempt at a commando roll) it would randomly turn itself off if touch, bumped or prodded. Something that was particularly distressing when you were on a call and needed to put it down to turn on the speaker. My most recent handset, the HTC Touch Diamond, did tick all the right boxes (size, weight, power, features) it also had a lovely habit of completely muting itself when someone rung, so that I could hear them but they couldn’t hear me. Several trips back and forth to the repair centre and online resources couldn’t turn up a fix. Pity I lost it as it would’ve made a great universal remote 🙂
The Xperia, whilst not a revolutionary piece of hardware or software does make some incremental changes that turn out to be a very usable phone in a delightfully sleek package. Sure it lacks an accelerometer and the IR trackpad, whilst a great idea, does turn out to be a bit lackluster but the build quality alone makes up for these lost features. Plus people won’t wonder why you’re so happy to see them when you put this phone in your pocket 😉
Overall I’m very pleased with my purchase and I’d love to see what else Sony has in store for this market. Whilst at the RRP of over AUD$1000 I’m not suprised that everyone is rushing out to buy one of these, but for the business and “prosumer” market it’s definitely in the ballpark.
Most of the time when you’re buying the latest widget you’re buying it with a purpose already in mind for it. I know the majority of the things I’ve bought were initially bought to fill a need (like the server this web page is coming to you from, it was a testbed for all sorts of wonderful things) and then are left at that. But what about that hidden little bit of value that’s inside pretty much every tech purchase these days, can we essentially get more for money we’ve already spent?
With technology moving at such a rapid pace these days pretty much every gadget you can think of has what amounts to a small computer inside it. A great example of this would be your stock standard iPod, whilst Apple is always coy about what is actually under the hood in these devices a little searching brings up this list which shows that the majority of them run on a re-branded Samsung ARM processor. While this might not mean anything to anybody a couple intrepid hackers took it upon themselves to port the world’s most popular free operating system, Linux, onto this device. Whilst this at first might seem like an exercise in futility a quick glance at their applications page shows many homebrew applications that have been developed for this platform.
This is not the only occurrence of something being used way outside its original purpose. Way back in 2005 Sony released the Playstation Portable, an amazing piece of hardware that was basically a Playstation 1 console made portable. Thanks to my working in retail at the time I had one in my pocket the day it was released, but it wasn’t until a couple years later that I discovered the huge hacking scene that was behind this device. I then discovered that I could run emulators, media streaming programs (I was able to wow my housemates by streaming media over WiFi to my PSP), homebrew games and so much more. Sure, I was running the risk of completely destroying the device in the process but the additional value I got out of it was worth the risk. Well, it was out of warranty anyway 😉
This kind of value-add is something I now seek in pretty much all of my technology purchases. Recently I bought myself a Sony Xperia X1 mobile, but not before hitting up my favourite HTC hacking site, XDA-Developers. A quick look at their Xperia section shows all sorts of wonderful things you can do with this handset. One of the most amazing things you can do is run Google’s Android platform on this handset, something which sealed the deal on the phone instantly. It’s things like this that help me justify such huge tech purchases (that and the fact that my work paid for the mobile 😉 ).
So I encourage you, look around your room and see if there’s anything there that you wouldn’t mind tinkering with and have a look around on the Internet to see what can be done. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised.