Oculus’ standalone headsets point to a changing VR landscape

2016 was the year that VR went mainstream. The Oculus Rift finally shipped to consumers, as did the HTC Vive and the PS VR. But even as the VR industry is finally starting to take off, it’s already beginning to splinter. Before, we had phone-based VR the likes of Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream, and then higher-end PC models like the Rift and the Vive. Now, the standalone VR headset is emerging as a category unto itself. And it stands to make the VR landscape a lot more accessible — and possibly more divisive — than ever before.

The idea of standalone VR headsets is not a new one. Intel explored the field with Project Alloy for a while before killing it earlier this year, Alcatel made one that didn’t quite take off and Google announced it’s working with standalone Daydream headsets from HTC and Lenovo too. But it’s Oculus — the pioneer of modern VR — that is the first to come out swinging with two different kinds of standalone VR headsets, one of which will be available to consumers early next year.

The latter is the Oculus Go, and it was the highlight of this year’s keynote at Oculus Connect 4. It’s attractively priced at $ 199 and shares the same DNA as the Gear VR — apps for the Gear VR should be compatible with the Go. The Go features a “fast-switch LCD” with WQHD 2560×1440 resolution that’s apparently better than OLEDs. It also has built-in audio so you don’t need headphones.

Will Smith, the CEO and founder of FOO VR — a company that builds talk shows in VR — was enthusiastic about the Go’s price. “$ 200 is fantastic. It makes VR so much more accessible and so much more compelling.” Also, as an iPhone user, he says the idea of a standalone headset is much more attractive than having to buy a Samsung phone on top of the Gear VR.

Sam Watts, a director of immersive technologies for MakeReal, a VR company based in the UK, was equally positive. “The price is just about an impulse buy,” he said. “You don’t need to buy a phone to use it, and as a developer, it’s nice to not have to worry about the ‘phone parts’ of the phone interfering with the experience.”

“An all-in-one, untethered, headset like this is the future,” Watts continued. “It’s a good step to wider adoption.” He also likes that the Gear VR and the Go will be software-compatible — Oculus has said the Go is also powered by Android — so it’s much easier for the same apps to work on both headsets.

Yet, the Go isn’t the only standalone headset that Oculus is working on. It’s also developing Project Santa Cruz, which is much more powerful than the Go. We had a chance to try it out at Oculus Connect 4, and the experience is much more akin to the Rift — with 6DOF (degrees of freedom) controllers and full positional tracking. The Go, by contrast, only has a 3DOF controller and orientation tracking like the Gear VR.

It seems that standalone headsets like Santa Cruz are the future of VR; untethered yet powerful. And while Go is less capable, having a cheap VR option is good too. Phone-based and PC-tethered VR already seem like they could get outdated in the next few years. Suddenly, though, it seems that Oculus has a divisive product portfolio on its hands.

But it’s early days still for VR. “Mobile drop-in, phone-based VR is going to be persistent,” said John Carmack, Oculus’ CTO, on the Oculus Connect 4 stage. “Standalone will probably take over and be a dominant form, but cell phone based VR will still have the largest number of users.” This, he said, is because phones will improve exponentially over time, and will probably drop in price. The Galaxy Note 8 of today will probably be very affordable in the future. “A cheap phone playing VR applications will still have significant value to users […] I don’t expect Go to do Samsung-like [sales] numbers.”

Watts remains enthusiastic too. “It’s great to have options,” he said. “These headsets have the same ecosystem, really. The cheap option lets you take a small bite of VR, and if you like it, you can upgrade, and still keep all your apps.”

“My guess is that the Go and the Santa Cruz will be one headset eventually,” said Smith, adding that Oculus will probably have just one standalone option in the future. Carmack seems to hint at the same, saying on stage that he thinks the two products will converge some day. Still, that’ll likely take a few years. While Santa Cruz is much more capable, the cost of making it right now is just too high. “$ 199 is a super power for Go,” Carmack continued. “It’s unlikely that we can throw all the other [high-end features] in at once.”

Besides, Carmack thinks, there’s still room for low-end VR. “You don’t need 6DOF for watching 360-degree videos,” he said, adding that Go and GearVR are for much more passive VR experiences.

Oculus won’t be the only one offering all-in-one headsets. As mentioned earlier, Google is working on standalone Daydream devices with the help of HTC and Lenovo. There’s room for independent companies to come forward with their own solutions too. Yes, the VR landscape will shift and split. But that could be a good thing.

“As with all tech, good things come to those who wait,” said Watts. “You just have to sit and be patient.”

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HTC Vive and Lenovo are developing standalone Daydream VR headsets

Google has another way to differentiate its mobile VR platform from Samsung’s: Standalone headsets that have all the hardware you’d need built right in, without the need for a phone. At Google I/O today, the company revealed that we’ll be seeing standalone Daydream headsets from HTC Vive and Lenovo later this year. They’ll be based on Qualcomm’s 835 VR platform and use Worldsense, a variation of Google’s Tango 3D mapping technology, for positional tracking without the need for any external sensors.

We only have a few sketches from HTC Vive and Lenovo for now, but they both look like typical VR headsets. HTC’s will use an overhead strap, while Lenovo’s will rest against your forehead, similar to Sony’s PlayStation VR. It also appears as if they’ll be using Google’s existing Daydream touch controller, though that could easily be changed by the time they’re released.

Lenovo’s standalone headset.

We heard that Google was working on standalone headsets last year, and we also reported exclusively that they’d be integrating eye-tracking and sensors for mapping the real world. By bundling all of the necessary hardware into a single device, Google has a way to market its platform to people who aren’t using Daydream-capable Android phones. That opens the door to iPhone users, as well as consumers who aren’t upgrading their Android devices anytime soon. Oculus is also developing a standalone VR headset of its own, and, based on our experience last year, it clearly looks like the future of virtual reality.

Qualcomm also revealed today that it worked together with Google to build a reference standalone Daydream VR headset. It’s not something that will be sold on its own, but it could help guide other companies as they design their own standalone units.

There’s no word on pricing for these standalone headsets yet. But, considering they’ll have the hardware typically found in powerful phones, I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up costing around $ 300 or more.

For all the latest news and updates from Google I/O 2017, follow along here

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The best bluetooth headsets

By Marianne Schultz and Nick Guy

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a buyer’s guide to the best technology. When readers choose to buy The Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read the full article here.

If you’re hopping on and off the phone throughout the day, or if you’re typically talking on the phone while driving (despite the safety concerns), the Plantronics Voyager Edge is the best Bluetooth headset for most people. After putting in 50-plus hours of research and testing more than 15 models over the past three years—including 12 hours of testing and three new models for the latest update—the Voyager Edge continues to lead the pack with its combination of stellar sound quality, long battery life, excellent Bluetooth range, and comfortable fit.

Who needs this

If you don’t do much talking on your mobile phone, but you prefer to talk hands-free, you’re probably fine using the earbuds that came with it. But a good mono (one-ear) Bluetooth headset is a great accessory if you speak on the phone frequently and want the convenience of having your hands free—you don’t want to stay tethered to your handset by a wire, or to have to hold the phone with your shoulder while you talk, which is terrible for your neck and back. A headset is also appealing if you need to be sure that your voice sounds clear to the person on the other end, even when you’re talking in an environment with a lot of wind or other background noise.

If you have a new iPhone 7, which lacks a headphone jack and has only a single Lightning-connector port for headphones or charging, a Bluetooth headset lets you charge your iPhone while you take calls hands-free.

How we picked and tested

Three headsets we tested for the 2016 update to this guide, from left: Jabra Steel, Plantronics Voyager 5200, and Plantronics Voyager Edge. Photo: Marianne Schultz

For our 2016 update, we looked for any newcomers to the market since the previous iteration of this guide. Consulting reviews on sites such as PCMag and ComputerWorld, and user reviews on Amazon, we narrowed the options down to two new models from major manufacturers that seemed worthy of hands-on testing.

You shouldn’t expect exceptionally long battery life, but you at least want your headset to last through a workday. We consider five hours of actual talk time to be the minimum. Some headsets, including our top pick, come with a charging case—a battery-equipped storage case that charges the headset when you put it inside—to extend battery life significantly, but the headset itself should still be able to last a good while alone.

In terms of functional design, you want a headset that charges via Micro-USB rather than with a proprietary cord or charger. You probably already have at least one or two other gadgets that use Micro-USB cables, so it’s nice to be able to use the same cable and charger for everything.

We tested for battery life, comfort, sound quality, and Bluetooth range. We also looked for headsets with excellent controls that allow you to answer calls and adjust the volume easily and intuitively. We gave bonus points to models that allow you to perform some of these functions hands-free, using just your voice. For more on our testing procedures, see our full guide.

Our pick

The Voyager Edge sits comfortably in your ear. Photo: Marianne Schultz

The Plantronics Voyager Edge remains our pick for most people because it’s a solid all-around performer. As in the past two years, it came out on top in our latest batch of audio-quality and comfort tests. In terms of battery life, it came in second out of the three headsets we tested this year, with a talk time of 6 hours; however, its included charging case gives it a total of 16 hours of talk time, the longest of the bunch. The Plantronics Voyager 5200 bested the Edge in Bluetooth range, but the Edge’s range is more than sufficient for most people. The Edge also has simple pairing, easy-to-use controls, and a smartphone companion app that makes it easy to adjust the headset’s settings.

The Voyager Edge supports Bluetooth 4.0, plus NFC pairing with compatible smartphones. We found pairing with an Apple iPhone 7 Plus to be quick and easy, and using the headset is just as simple. In addition to voice control, the Voyager Edge has sensors to determine whether you’re wearing it. The headset has physical buttons for on-off, volume level, call answer, and voice command, each of which are easy to find and press.

Call quality is the most important aspect of any Bluetooth headset, and the Voyager Edge excels here. In our tests of call audio quality, it was edged out slightly by the more-expensive Voyager 5200 in a quiet office environment, but performed better than the 5200 in a busy coffee shop and a windy car—the Edge was a solid, all-around performer, particularly given its compact size. The Voyager Edge is usually around $ 30 cheaper than the Voyager 5200, so the minor differences we heard in audio quality makes the Edge a better overall value.

Runner-up

The Voyager 5200 fits over the ear for a more secure fit, but it’s more of a hassle to put on. Photo: Marianne Schultz

The Voyager 5200 is a beefier headset with more features. It has an additional microphone for noise-cancelling (for a total of four, compared with three on the Voyager Edge), and its Bluetooth range is the most impressive of the bunch. Plantronics says the 5200 can reach 98 feet without audio dropping out; in our tests we noticed dropouts in voice calls at just over 70 feet, but streamed music didn’t get choppy until around 150 feet.

A budget alternative

Photo: Marshall Troy

The Plantronics Explorer 500 is a good choice for people who don’t want to spend a ton and are willing to give up some audio quality. The Explorer 500 is smaller than the Voyager Edge, but its battery lasts about an hour longer. It also has great Bluetooth range: In our tests, audio didn’t drop out until around 54 feet for voice and 95 feet for music. In our quiet-office and coffee-shop tests, however, our listening panel didn’t love the audio the 500 transmitted. One panelist in an earlier test described voice as sounding “blobby” in the office, and in another test the Explorer picked up more background noise than other units did. In the coffee-shop test, it lost some audio whenever plates clinked in the background.

This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

Note from The Wirecutter: When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn affiliate commissions that support our work.

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