Facebook Live 360 Adds 4K and VR Support

Lucas Matney, TechCrunch:

Full 1080p is fine for spherical photos, but it’s actually a pretty low resolution for video when all those pixels are stretched over a 360-sphere. Today, Facebook is bringing 4K support to Live 360, and, along with it, support for viewing broadcasts in the Facebook 360 app on Gear VR.

360 video is arguably more of a novelty than full VR at this point. Sure, 360 video is more widely available, and watchable on a standard phone or computer screen without a headset. But when’s the last time you heard anybody get excited about a 360 video? At least enthusiasts keep coming back for more VR content.

Report: Facebook Readying $200 Standalone VR Headset

As I referenced in today’s piece about the future of Oculus on Samsung VR hardware, Facebook is going to launch a $200 standalone VR headset. This according to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman.

That Facebook would do this, if in fact they are, should come as no surprise. Oculus Rift has been around for a few years, and Facebook slashed its price by half over the past four months. Rift also has to be plugged into a high-end Windows PC to work, and main competitors Google, HTC, Lenovo, and Samsung have all announced their own standalone VR headsets for launch later this year.

A few other bits from Gurman’s report bear some quick analysis:

The new headset will have a similar interface to Samsung’s VR Gear and can be controlled by a wireless remote. Facebook has said it’s also working on a prototype device code-named Santa Cruz that’s basically a wireless Rift, with the full power of the original device sans PC.

Two tiers: The original Rift, perhaps soon with a wireless upgrade, for developers and enthusiasts, and; The new standalone model for more casual users.

Oculus has plans to enlist China’s Xiaomi and its network of contract manufacturers to produce the new headset for global distribution, people familiar with the arrangement said. The device will feature Oculus branding around the world, except a custom version for China will feature Xiaomi branding and run some Xiaomi software applications, the people said. Hugo Barra, recently put in charge of Oculus’s VR products, was previously a Xiaomi executive. Xiaomi declined to comment.

The company plans to begin briefing content makers, such as video game designers, on the device by October so that the product’s application store could launch with compatible games, one of the people said. The downloads store will be re-written and accessible from the virtual reality interface itself, this person said.

That first sentence is smart business and shouldn’t be surprising. It’s what Apple’s doing with ARKit right now, and how you do a good platform launch in 2017.

The second sentence is, in a nutshell, the key to why the coming class of consumer-level standalone headsets has a chance at really taking off. Pro VR rigs like Rift and HTC Vive are expensive and complicated for the casual user to setup and maintain. Phone-based VR systems like Gear VR and Google Cardboard are cheaper and easier to dive into, but they’re based on a user experience originally designed for touch screen computing, not immersive computing.

I’m pretty experienced with consumer gadgetry, and phones in particular. I still get frustrated and run into road blocks using Gear VR with my Samsung Galaxy phones. VR puts a ton of strain on a phone’s CPU, GPU and battery, and running VR software atop a phone’s base OS can lead to all kinds of issues. System-level notifications interrupting a VR experience can ruin the effect. Background apps eating up resources can bring your VR environment crashing to a halt, period.

A task-specific VR rig running hardware and software built for nothing else should theoretically be much easier to use than a VR layer woven into a phone’s stack. Much will depend on the quality of user experience, starting with the Oculus store. It’s not bad currently, but it needs to be simpler and offer more (optional) hand holding for novices if Facebook really wants their new headset to make waves.

Is Samsung Leaving Oculus To Launch Its Own VR Platform?

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Facebook Inc. is taking another stab at turning its Oculus Rift virtual reality headset into a mass-market phenomenon. Later this year, the company plans to unveil a cheaper, wireless device that the company is betting will popularize VR the way Apple did the smartphone.

Facebook’s new headset is designed to bridge the gap — a device that will sell for as little as $200 and need not be tethered to a PC or phone, according to people familiar with its development. It will ship next year and represent an entirely new category.

That explains Monday’s drastic cut of Oculus Rift prices.

Code-named “Pacific,” the device resembles a more compact version of the Rift and will be lighter than Samsung’s Gear VR headset, one of the people said. The device’s design and features aren’t finalized and could still change, but the idea is that someone will be able to pull the headset out of their bag and watch movies on a flight just the way you can now with a phone or tablet.

I actually picked up a Rift and a Gear VR earlier this week. Both have impressed me so far (in a very small amount of use). Rift, in particular, is a nice piece of kit. It’s lighter and more comfortable to wear than its closest competitor, HTC. I’m really curious to see how small and comfortable Facebook-Oculus can make a standalone unit.

Facebook’s new VR handset will ship in 2018 so will miss this year’s holiday shopping season, giving rivals a chance to hit the market first. But the $200 price and Oculus’s reputation among developers could give the gadget an edge with consumers.

I bet that Samsung Exynos VR system will also run Facebook-Oculus’ platform, and it could beat Facebook to market this year (I have no idea). But having covered Samsung through the first decade of the smartphone wars, I wouldn’t put it past them to pivot away from Oculus and launch their own VR store.

And I wouldn’t put it past Facebook to have already nudged them firmly in that direction. Which would be shrewd as hell, right?

1. Buy Oculus

2. License Oculus software and distribution platform to Samsung for Gear VR

3. Let Samsung deal with building hardware to give away to smartphone buyers: It builds your (Oculus platform) install base.

4. Advance the tech enough to build your own consumer-grade headset. Set the price bar super low ahead of time to screw with hardware competitors. Because you can, because you’re Facebook and have all the cash.

5.  Kick Samsung off the Oculus platform. Suddenly, your biggest competitor has no content. None.

6. Run for Preside… j/k

Gurman has a long, solid track record of breaking consumer tech product news, by the way.

Oculus Slashes Rift Bundle Price to $399. That’s a 50% Drop in Four Months.

Oculus just announced a sale on their Rift + Touch bundle. For a limited time (six weeks, starting today), you can pick up the bundle for $399 USD. That’s a $200 savings.

The new pricing also represents a 50% savings, or $400, from the same bundle’s $798 price only four months ago.

Note that the new sale pricing only applies to the bundle. Purchased separately, the Oculus Touch controllers are still $99. This is all being marketing as part of the company’s Summer of Rift promotion, which features sale prices on a wide selection of games and other content, as well.

Without getting too far into reading tea leaves, all available data points to two possible reasons for the price cut:

1. Oculus hasn’t sold very many Rifts. VR headsets generally haven’t sold well, with the possible exception of Samsung’s Gear VR. I say possible because many of the units Samsung has moved have been freebies thrown in with the purchase of a new Galaxy smartphone.

2. The impending launch of standalone VR headsets from HTC, Lenovo, and Samsung spells significantly increased competition for mindshare and early install base capture. Oculus is doing what they can to bring new users into their ecosystem now, before these new platforms hit the market later this year.

Mobile AR Could Top $60B by 2021

Gas up the hype machine, AR is hot.

Hot on the heels of Apple announcing that native Augmented Reality is coming to, oh, half a billion or so iPhone users this Fall, people are throwing big numbers around in discussing AR’s potential to change the world (or get rich trying). To wit, VentureBeat, citing Digi-Captial’s Q1 2017 Mobile Augmented Reality report:

Apple’s announcement of its ARkit for iOS this week as “the largest AR platform in the world” took the mobile AR war to the next level. They’re fighting over a market that could hit over a billion users and $60 billion revenue globally by 2021.

VB’s take is well worth reading, as it both explores and refutes the meaningful differences between “AR Hardware” and “AR Software.” The takeaway is that when it comes to forecasting augmented reality’s prospects, focusing on any sort of hardware vs software split is in many ways missing the point.  The point is that between advances in “mobile AR hardware” (phones, mainly) and “mobile AR Software” (Facebook, Apple iOS, and Snap, mainly, in the U.S.; Tencent’s WeChat in China) AR is coming to a ton of pockets, and soon:

Mobile AR hardware from Apple, Samsung, Huawei and others could deliver an installed base over 400 million users by 2021, Facebook, Tencent, Apple, Snap and others could drive a mobile AR software user base in the hundreds of millions next year, and billions by 2021. Mobile AR software platforms could deliver over 4 times the number of users of dedicated mobile AR hardware.

And whether you’re focused on the software delivering AR experiences, the hardware that software runs on, or both, you’re looking at the same thing. That thing is a phone:

Mobile AR could become the dominant AR/VR market for the foreseeable future, as it solves the 5 major consumer challenges for AR (hero device, all-day battery life, mobile connectivity, app ecosystem, telco cross-subsidization). Together with backing from major global consumer platforms like Facebook, the inflection point for AR/VR might now be within sight.

It’s worth pointing out to you, the reader, that while I’ve been obsessed with mobile phones for nearly two decades now, covering AR (and VR) is a relatively new journey for me. So take this with a very big grain of salt as I learn more about the business side of the Reality Business, but I’m fixated on how Apple and Facebook will coexist in these new realities. Facebook’s Camera and AR Studio can thrive alongside Apple’s ARKit. But they could also compete fiercely with one another.