CES, the largest electronics product showcase of the year, ran in virtual form this week. CES usually takes over Las Vegas for a week each January, and reliably creates at least a few surprising headlines. This year’s event seemed subdued, and also rather removed from the current reality, even though many of the announcements related to clean-tech or other responses to the pandemic. The XR news was similarly subdued, though this is partly because of other trends at work in the XR space. Yet there were a few exciting announcements that XR creators should keep in mind, as well as indicators of wider trends.
XR Trends on View at CES
Since this year’s CES was virtual, you might imagine that there would be a host of XR-related announcements at the tradeshow. Though it wasn’t totally disappointing in that respect, most of the big names in XR have either pivoted to the enterprise space (Microsoft, Magic Leap) or have moved towards making major announcements at their own events (Facebook/Oculus). While this is not a new trend, it means that companies were not really poised to take advantage of an uptick in interest in XR (and especially VR) amongst consumers, and what we saw at CES was indicative of the enterprise-first focus.
Another trend in XR reflected in the CES showings was described by HTC General Manager Graham Wheeler. Disappointingly, HTC had no XR announcements for this year’s CES, but in an interview, Wheeler assessed a move towards ‘all-in-two’ headsets as a major force in headset design approaches. These headsets offload compute to a connected device — either a PC or a smartphone, thus allowing for a lightweight, more comfortable wearable.
These all-in-twos are different from the earlier generation of smartphone-enabled VR in that earlier headsets like the GearVR used the phone’s screen as the display, while in these headsets, the display is separate from the smartphone. Now, with much more powerful phone processors, these all-in-twos can deliver more complex, yet still performant experiences, while ensuring that the optics and display are really designed for the best XR experience, rather than an afterthought.
These two trends — enterprise focus, and a move towards all-in-twos were quite notable in the year’s offerings at CES. Here’s an overview of the offerings:
Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Smart Glasses
Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 AR headset is an upgrade from the currently available A6 model, and is aimed at enterprise users, with two variants — one focused on office productivity, and one tailored to industrial on-site applications.
The original design for the glasses predates the pandemic and was meant primarily to facilitate collaboration. Now, though, the company has pivoted the marketing of the device to focus on improving work-from-home setups by allowing a virtual multi-monitor setup that makes good use of home office space. The glasses enable wearer’s to work from 5 virtual displays simultaneously, meaning that a laptop-wielding worker could increase screen real estate quite substantially.
The Industrial Edition of the headset connects to an Android device and allows communication with remote support while a technician is working on-site. This variant has industrial lenses and side shields to make it more usable in a variety of non-office settings.
TCL Wearable display
This display is designed to replicate the experience of viewing a 140-inch display from a 4-meter distance. The glasses contain no real processing, and require a wired connection (via USB-C) to a device which will serve the video. The headset can also display 3D content, but it seems most positioned as a head-mounted large-format display for ‘flat’ content.
Vuzix Next Gen Smart Glasses
This is an attractive and unobtrusive pair of smart glasses that function as an HUD, much like the original Google Glass. The display is powered by tiny microLED projectors, which allow for stereoscopic monochrome or color images. Like audio-first smart glasses such as the Bose or Amazon frames, these feature stereo speakers and noise-canceling microphones, as well as gesture-based controls, such as tapping on the arm of the frame to control the device. Like many other newly-announced headsets at CES this year, these glasses are enterprise focused, and are a HUD rather than true AR solution.
CREAL is presenting two headset designs — one AR and one VR — which use light-field displays to provide a more convincing image. Most current XR solutions do not simulate the way the eye adjusts to depth of focus — when your eye focuses on one part of a scene, the rest of the scene appears blurry. With light-field displays, you can convincingly focus at any depth in the scene.
CREAL is not a headset manufacturer, the company is looking to partner with manufacturers to develop commercial models using this technology, so don’t expect to see them on the market any time soon. Nonetheless, this is a good demonstration of an advance in optics that can contribute to more realism in XR.
Here’s a short clip of in-headset footage, which unlike early demos from Magic Leap, seems to legitimately reflect the state of the technology.
Panasonic VR Glasses
Check out these steampunk Panasonic VR Glasses — this is an all-in-two headset with 6DOF inside-out tracking, and two 2.6K microOLED panels featuring high dynamic range capability for what should be excellent image quality. Because of the small optics and the fact that processing has been offloaded to either a PC or a compatible 5G device, this headset is lightweight.
An earlier prototype of this headset was announced at CES last year, but this year’s model has been improved to balance the device more comfortably on the user’s head, as well as to include two cameras in the front of the arms to enable 6DOF — last year’s prototype was 3DOF only.
If you wear glasses and are wondering if you can use these, Panasonic has included diopter adjustment, so you can adjust the lens to accommodate your vision. The headset also has IPD adjustment.
Panasonic’s VR Glasses are compatible with SteamVR, though it’s a little unclear if these are aimed squarely at a gaming audience.
SenseGlove Nova is a new glove that advances the current SenseGlove DK1 which has been on the market since 2018. The expected application for the gloves is for enterprise users, specifically in training applications, which justifies its $5000 price point.
Four magnetic friction brakes in each finger provides a feeling of interacting with an object, with each brake delivering up to 20N of force.
Unlike the SenseGlove DK1, the Nova is not compatible with the Vive, and only available for standalone headsets.
The Etee controllers from TG0 are are buttonless controllers aimed at gamers. The sensors register proximity, touch and pressure from each finger. They are easy to wear, and more intuitive than other controller solutions, while still retaining compatibility with existing headsets. For social applications the proximity tracking would allow for more accurate hand modelling in VR, and for virtual art applications, the additional sensitivity of these controllers could be an asset. It’s not clear how many consumers will want to pay for these benefits, though.
For a full body experience, check out the bHaptics TactSuit. The suit comes in two versions — the X16 ($299) and the X40 ($499). The biggest difference between the two suits is the number of vibration points — 16 in the X16 and 40 in the X40. In addition to the native support for the suit in a growing number of titles (approximately 70 at the time of writing), the suit offers audio-to-haptic software to enable haptic interactions in experiences that don’t yet support the suit, including listening to music or watching a movie.
Beyond the vest, there are arm sleeves ($249), hand devices ($250), foot devices ($250) and a haptic face mask ($149).
Non-Headset Based XR (and other interesting announcements)
Some of these products are XR-adjacent, rather than ‘true’ VR or AR products, yet I think that they provide an interesting suggestion of the range of innovation in delivery of 3D content.
Panasonic Augmented Reality HUD
Panasonic announced an automotive-focused AR HUD with an aim to improve driver safety. The HUD is intended to replace driver assistants that are often deactivated in challenging urban environments since the guidance can overwhelm drivers.
In addition to the computer vision component of the solution, the system includes eye tracking technology to detect the driver’s area of attention. The HUD can provide navigational aid, alert drivers to sudden obstacles or changes in road conditions, as well as assist in challenging situations such as night driving.
Ikin has created a way to deliver holograms outside of any head-mounted display. The Ryz is a phone peripheral that allows users to share 3D images, and the company claims that the holograms are visible even in bright lighting conditions.
Sony Spatial Reality Display
This light field display allows users to view 3-dimensional objects by adjusting their perspective to view different parts of the scene. It is aimed at the enterprise, with an aim at supporting the workflow of product designers and other creative workers who deal with 3D content. The price of the display is $5000, and unlike many of these products, it is already available.
Mojo Vision Lenses
The winner of the Last Gadget Standing prize at CES, the Mojo Vision Lenses are contacts that allow for informational overlays on your field of view. The lenses look like standard contacts, but contain microelectronics that allow you to augment your view with a variety of types of information, such as navigational aids, images, and even video.
Some narrower, but more impactful purposes of the lenses is to improve quality of life for those with eye conditions such as glaucoma — the lenses can improve contrast or accentuate edges to assist people with low vision.
Reachy the Robot
Pollen Robotics has created a robot with the ability to manipulate everyday objects, and equipped it with a remote VR control feature. It looks like it could use some refinement, but it’s clear that this kind of solution could be a very helpful way to deliver remote help, which is especially relevant in this era of social distancing.
CES also featured some companies that took advantage of VR technology to deliver information to exhibition attendees. It is only surprising to me that relatively few companies took this step, instead opting to deliver video press conferences. However, here are a couple of companies that took the leap into VR this year.
John Deere was a surprise hit at last year’s CES, and this year, the company opted to create an immersive environment including a farm and farming technology. You can still take a look at their exhibit and explore their 360 experiences here.
Fiat Chrysler Virtual Tour
Fiat Chrysler offered visitors a guided VR tour of their showroom, where you can visualize many of their cars in 3D. Using a mobile device or headset, you can explore the showroom here.
Takeaways for XR Creators
XR creators should keep in mind the ergonomic advantages of all-in-two headsets, and how these might enable longer sessions in XR. Instead of being a clunky add-on to someone’s workflow, I can see these headsets leading to a much wider adoption of XR — and particularly AR — in office settings.
On the accessories front, I’m not sure that any of the solutions we saw from CES will be true game-changers — the SenseGlove seems the most compelling, though its price point means it will stay largely in the enterprise training sector for the time being.
The most relevant CES news for XR creators may not be hardware announcements at all, but rather the examples of virtual exhibition booths as demonstrated by John Deere and Fiat Chrysler. These sorts of experiences provide excellent studies for how companies can adjust their marketing by taking advantage of XR technologies to better connect with audiences, even when physical exhibitions aren’t possible.