The AR/VR Platform Wars have Begun

on June 3, 2016

While the hype around virtual reality and, to a lesser extent, augmented reality, has been steadily ramping up, to date there haven’t been all that many actual device shipments. Two recent major AR/VR platform announcements from Microsoft and Google should help change that. At Computex, Microsoft announced it would make available to its hardware partners the Windows Holographic platform that powers its own HoloLens product, enabling them to bring to market compatible Windows-10 based hardware. Google, at its recent I/O Developer Conference, announced it would offer partners a screenless VR viewer hardware reference design and a new platform called DayDream that will enable them to bring to market Android smartphones that offer virtual reality capabilities baked into the operating system. Both announcements promise to accelerate the number of hardware products headed into the market in the future. Just as important, both announcements represent the respective company’s early attempts to establish their platforms as key places for developers and content producers to focus their creation of new AR/VR apps and media.

Google’s DayDream

DayDream is a platform within a platform and reflects Google’s knack for driving scale. The company’s first foray into virtual reality was via Google Cardboard, which let users download an app on their Android or iOS phone and then slide the phone into a literal cardboard and plastic viewer to enjoy a rudimentary virtual reality experience. This was millions of people’s first taste of VR. Now the company is rolling Daydream into the upcoming Android N release which means, in relatively short order, the software will begin shipping on millions of new Android phones with apps and content available via Google’s existing Play Store and YouTube. Unfortunately, because DayDream requires Google-certified hardware specs within the host Android phone, most consumers won’t be able to update their existing Android smartphone and get the full DayDream experience. The one exception: The Huawei Nexus 6P. Near term, expect only high-end Android phones to meet the DayDream hardware specification requirements, but that shouldn’t be true for very long.

While many expected Google to announce Android-related VR plans at I/O, few expected the company to roll out the screenless viewer reference design. By taking this step, Google has enabled smartphone vendors to quickly create viewers that work with their phones, getting the products to market in much less time. The reference design is also unique in that it includes a handheld controller with its own set of sensors. This should help drive a better, more immersive VR experience than can be achieved with a simple screenless viewer that lacks a controller.

At I/O, Google said eight smartphone vendors were set to launch DayDream-enabled phones later in the year — Alcatel, Asus, Huawei, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, ZTE and Samsung. The latter is notable because Samsung is, to date, the only smartphone vendor currently shipping its own screenless-viewer product, the Gear VR, which works with its high-end Galaxy S6, S7, and Note products. Interestingly, the Gear VR is co-branded with Facebook’s Oculus, which provides the VR platform and content. With DayDream, Google is clearly targeting Facebook’s entry-level beachhead in VR (the Oculus Rift, the company’s high-end product, runs on a PC). It will be interesting to see if Samsung continues to utilize both platforms going forward as it has done with Tizen and Android Wear in wearables.

Microsoft’s Windows Holographic

While Google’s announcement offers vendors a near plug-and-play solution that should drive new VR hardware into the market as soon as the second half of 2016, Microsoft’s announcement sets the stage for a longer play. Instead of a ready-made reference design and hardware specifications, Microsoft is making available to its partners the underlying Windows-10 based platform that drives its own HoloLens hardware. HoloLens is a high-end, standalone augmented reality device, but Microsoft is pitching Windows Holographic as a platform for everything from basic VR to advanced AR, running on a wide range of different types of hardware.

The platform itself includes what Microsoft calls its holographic shell, a primary interaction model, its own “perception” APIs, and access to Xbox Live services. In other words, instead of building all of this from scratch, Microsoft has created something upon which hardware vendors can build, as long as they’re willing to do it in Microsoft’s world. That said, the company isn’t offering up a reference design. Just as it did with Surface, where it sought to drive innovation by creating its own competitive product, Microsoft sees HoloLens as a product from which other hardware vendors can draw inspiration. Microsoft listed off a who’s who of key hardware players as partners, including Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, HTC, Acer, ASUS, CyberPowerPC, Dell, Falcon Northwest, HP, iBuyPower, Lenovo, and MSI.

The Microsoft announcement is interesting because it’s been clear from the start HoloLens is and will continue to be for some time a high-end product geared toward commercial users. In order to drive some level of scale to attract developers, the company was always going to have to get additional hardware into the mix. This plan gives hardware vendors a way to bring new products to market by piggybacking on the work Microsoft has already done. It’s far different from what Google is making available with DayDream and it will take some time to see if hardware vendors take Microsoft up on its offer.

With these announcements, we now have the early stages of an AR/VR platform story from Google and Microsoft. The lingering question: What will Apple do in the space and will the company give its first glimpse of its plans at the upcoming WWDC?