Deep within all the mobile gadget news streamed from Mobile World Congress and the Game Developers Conference, one of the most compelling technology stories unfolding is the evolution of the virtual reality (VR) headset.
New players surging into the market, long led by legacy vendor Oculus (now boasting Facebook as its parent) and its in-development Rift headset, include Samsung, Sony and a collaborative VR strategy from smartphone maker HTC and game developer Valve/Steam.
Such tech powerhouse involvement is enough to get all VR fans and gaming enthusiasts completely stoked. The fact that there are increasing headset prototypes and demos in play is evidence that virtual reality technology is closer to actual reality than ever before.
Let's take a look at what the players are doing with VR and what's ahead in the next year or so given media reports, and ultimately, who will emerge king of the VR headset competition.
First off, keep in mind that most VR headsets are still in the developer phase and while one or two may be hitting some consumer shelves by year's end, for the most part the devices are still not meant for public use.
Samsung has indicated that scenario will change next fall during its next hardware cycle. Oculus tech chief John Carmack reportedly stated the Gear VR, a Samsung and Oculus collaboration, will stay in the "innovator" phase until the company believes it's good to go on a consumer level.
As Tech Times reported, Oculus isn't sitting idle as a growing number of VR headsets stream into the VR tech pool. Oculus is acquiring Nimble VR, a two-year-old startup that has built a depth-sensing camera capable of tracking hand movements in VR play.
Nimble VR has more than just VR expertise in common with Oculus. The startup launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, just like Oculus did before being purchased by Facebook for $2 billion. The Nimble acquisition, as one media report states, illustrates Oculus' intentions are advancing fast.
"But as now there isn't formal support across the board for a type of VR interaction standard. When that happens, look out," stated an industry report.
Oculus' current Rift device, called Crescent Bay, features extensive capabilities but is viewed as still needing substantial improvement. Those improvements will come given Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's passion for VR.
"Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face to face just by putting on goggles in your home," he wrote in a blog. "I've seen five or six demos that made me think the world was about to change: Apple II, Netscape, Google, iPhone ... then Oculus," he said.
The latest news is that Oculus will release a consumer-friendly headset very late this year or more likely early next year. That would be about four years since its first prototype appeared.
Samsung Gear VR
To put it as simple as possible, the Gear VR is being described as a meld of Oculus Rift (a step above the first Oculus Rift, DK1) and a more serious version of Google's VR Cardboard headset that works off a smartphone or tablet -- in this case Samsung's Note 4.
With Gear VR, Samsung and Oculus are putting their best foot forward," stated a reviewer. "Gear VR is an awesome proof of concept; it's exciting to see a phone-based VR system that's this good. It's exciting that we've come this far in the two or so years since the Rift DK1 shipped. This is almost undoubtedly the way virtual reality will make its way to the masses," notes the reviewer.
Game vendor Valve and smartphone maker HTC are collaborating on the Vive, announced at the recent GDC event. As one reviewer says, the Vive is already ahead of Rift in terms of comfort and overall experience.
"When my 20 minutes with Valve and HTC's Vive came to an end ... I only felt disappointed that I couldn't continue exploring the 3D painting demo or playing with the specially designed Portal 2 vignette," wrote the reviewer, noting that it's still way too early to declare any sort of VR headset winner.
HTC said the Vive is different from LG or Samsung's VR headsets. The two brands require that a smartphone be used in connection with the headsets. The Vive will be joined to a PC instead, feature a laser position, gyroscope, accelerometer and even hand tracking. There's also supposedly going to be a 1,200 x 1,080 screen in front of each eye. The plan is to have a developer version out this spring and a consumer product by year's end.
Slated to arrive in the first half of 2016, making it likely one of the later entrants into the consumer market, the Sony Morpheus could be the VR headset worth waiting for, given early reviews.
Tech Times reported the VR device will likely drive PS4 gaming to a whole new level of play. Being second or third out of the VR headset gate could ultimately prove to be the winning strategy given its refresh rate will be much improved and better than HTC's headset, according to reports.