When phrased as a question, this is what my team of Venture Capitalists asked in early 2014. At the time, we guessed “Oculus Rift because who else is there?” Sony, Survios, Magic Leap, and HTC, that’s who, just inside the next year. That gave our team enough pause to take a wait-and-see approach as we sat back and monitored the situation to understand what was happening, how we got here, and what it meant for VR.
I want to share some of those learnings and explain why predicting the “winner” might not be the most relevant question in this market.
The Headset Rush
Between software eating our world and mobile hardware being the peace dividend of the smartphone wars, we’re not just seeing the big players involved anymore. There is now space for small businesses and startups to innovate new VR & AR hardware, even as simple as inserting the newest smartphone into a plastic container.
The result? HMDs (Head-Mounted Displays) are much easier to bring to market more now than ever before. From Cardboard to GearVR, to Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and beyond, it’s hard to settle on what will be the mainstream player, and as people like myself are asked, “Which headset should I buy?”, it’s a natural inclination to attempt to identify which of these headsets would be the winner.
One HMD to Rule Them All
“There will be a convergence where all HMDs will effectively merge into one main headset.” You have no idea how many times we’ve heard this from very smart and respected thought leaders, many of whom we call friends.
Take a look at history though, and there is no clear winner of iPhone vs Android. Windows vs Mac. XBox vs PlayStation. Unity vs Unreal. The low cost of manufacturing means that this particular market has room for numerous other solutions that you‘ll find in China and Walmart for basic 360 viewing, and over time they too will likely continue to innovate and improve upon their hardware.
Besides that, different headsets will be needed for different markets, such as construction, medical, and education. Look at Amazon Kindle, Kindle Fire Kids Edition, and the iPad Pro as examples of this in the tablet space. There will always be new players, new innovations, and new form factors.
We do like our winners. We like singling out a single individual or team to win at sports, movies, and competitions. It makes the conversation simpler. But go to your local electronics store and see if you can find the winning television set. Or the winning computer manufacturer. The winning headsets will be the ones that run the most content for the most people, and there will be more than one of them if we can figure out how to get there.
The Winning Solution
But what would be an ideal VR platform play? Consider that each headset has its own unique merits. Vive’s tracking is currently the best we’ve seen for VR, and Hololens for AR. Starbreeze, the best field-of-view at 210 degrees. Cardboard, accessible at low cost, while Oculus Touch arguably having the best controllers. Think of this as crowdsourced R&D across manufacturers.
In such an R&D environment, the final product would optimally combine all the best tech that came out of each department. In this scenario, everyone would win by contributing to something special. Perhaps that’s what OpenXR is meant to be, and that would be fun to see in hardware if it weren’t for the “winner-take-all” attitude of walled gardens and lawsuits. Some manufacturers however are seeing the benefits of joining forces, so perhaps there’s some hope yet.
Regardless, even if we do converge on a reduced single-digit set of platforms, we’re still going down a path of infinite headsets until we eventually get there.
Respecting the Legacy
One last point to be watchful of when picking a winner: not to diminish the value of the other players in the field and the roles that they continue to serve. Even when superior hardware appear, support for 1–2 year old legacy VR devices (Samsung Galaxy S6, Oculus Rift w/o Touch Controllers) is a critical factor that must be considered, otherwise this industry will suffer.
Gas-powered cars did not go away as soon as electric vehicles appeared, nor did flip-phones suddenly vanish the year the iPhone launched. There are over 7 million VR headsets in the field, which will ultimately become the entry point for mid-to-late, hand me down VR adopters. Their first experiences with VR are just as, if not even more important, than those for the first movers, at least while we are still working to mainstream this industry.
I recently posted the current headset / controller roster to highlight the fact that the still-growing HMD ecosystem is not yet settled. Until it is, it’s hard to say that reduction of cost, size, or weight would be enough to get more VR consumers on board. If the consumer base remains stagnant, which headset wins? None of them.
That’s why we started asking better questions.