Why limit your opportunities by choosing just one possible winner when you can back them all? That seems to be Samsung’s current operating principle when it comes to throwing its weight behind the major players in the brewing virtual reality platform wars. At this point, the company has now announced hardware that supports the VR platforms of Oculus, Google, and Microsoft. It’s certainly not the first time Samsung has hedged its platform bets, but it may be the only time it has backed three different major platforms at once.
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Samsung moved fast to be the first major hardware vendor to embrace virtual reality’s move toward the mainstream. The company backed Facebook’s Oculus VR platform early with the Gear VR screenless viewer product that works with its high-end Galaxy S and Note smartphones. The company started shipping the Gear VR headset in late 2014, and through the first half of 2017 has now moved over 6 million units. Last year, it announced that its high-end phones would also support Google’s Daydream VR platform, which also utilizes a screenless viewer headset (this one made by Google). And more recently, the company announced it would support Microsoft’s Mixed Reality platform with the first OLED-based tethered VR headset on the platform called the HMD Odyssey.
Of course, Samsung is no stranger to platform battles. It was one of the first major vendors to support Google’s Chrome on notebooks, in addition to shipping Windows-based PCs. And while the company’s own Tizen OS failed to gain traction versus Google Android on phones, it has established itself as a viable alternative to Android Wear on the company’s wearable devices. Just as no large-scale manufacturer wants to become beholden to a single component manufacturer for its success, Samsung has often worked hard to ensure its fortunes never rest with a single platform provider.
That said, the company’s moves around VR have seemed even more calculated and savvy. After throwing in with Oculus early, Samsung has worked hard to incentivize developers to create apps for its own ecosystem on top of that platform. During its recent developers’ conference, Samsung released a press release noting that the Gear VR’s ecosystem includes more than 1,000 apps and 10,000 360-degree videos. The release also talked about Samsung’s own first-party apps and services. These include Samsung Internet VR (a Gear VR browser), Samsung PhoneCast VR (an app that translates 2D apps into 3D), VRB Foto (a social 360 photo sharing solution), and Gear VR Framework (an open source VR rendering engine with a Java interface for traditional Android Developers). What’s particularly notable about Samsung’s release is that while it talked at great length about Gear VR, it failed even to mention platform partner Oculus.
When Google announced its Daydream VR platform in 2016, it listed Samsung as one of the phone makers that would eventually support the platform. Eventually, Samsung did roll out updates enabling Daydream on its high-end phones. Here again, however, Samsung’s motive seems less about supporting Google’s VR ambitions and more about acquiring something it needs. Specifically, a strong partnership with Google that is proving important now as the company works to better leverage the new ARCore software developer kit to bring augmented reality to Samsung’s phones. Most Android vendors are likely to support ARCore, but Samsung’s interest runs deeper in that the company has made clear that it plans to utilize AR as part of Bixby Vision, a merging of its own smart assistant platform with its smartphone cameras to drive a new “hybrid deep learning system.”
Finally, at Microsoft’s recent Mixed Reality event in San Francisco, Samsung completed its VR triple play with the announcement that it would offer its own headset in support of the Windows 10-based platform. The Samsung product, which ships in November, is notable for its high-end design, integrated audio, and high-quality OLED displays. The result is a notably more premium product than the other Windows Mixed Reality devices. And it’s one that likely only Samsung—with its R&D budget and access to its own high-dollar display technology—could pull off. Samsung’s entry here has notably increased the level of interest in this platform, and some expect Samsun’s product to be in strong demand through the holidays.
Next: VR Content Capture
Despite now having hardware geared toward VR consumption on all three major VR content platforms, Samsung isn’t stopping there. Earlier this year it shipped its latest consumer-focused standalone 360-degree camera, the $230 Gear 360. More recently the company announced it was entering the professional 360-degree camera space with the 360 Round. The 360 Round uses 17 lenses (eight stereo pairs positioned horizontally and one lens positioned vertically) to capture 4K 3D video and spatial audio, which it can stream live. The360 Round will sell for an estimated $10,500. With these latest products, we see Samsung further flexing its design and manufacturing muscle, moving to enable yet another piece of the VR ecosystem.
Ultimately, if VR does take off in either the consumer or commercial spaces (or both), Samsung has positioned itself well to capture a significant amount of the hardware value generated by the technology. It now has hardware focused on both the creation and the consumption fronts. Samsung’s efforts over the years to field its own platforms, or to seek out competing platforms to protect itself from its own partners haven’t always been successful. But the company has clearly learned a great deal from these experiences. And it makes it easier to understand why the company is backing all the current VR platform players. Whoever ultimately wins, Samsung will be there to capture a portion of the revenues.