A slew of recent AR and VR devices are hitting the market without cables, most notably Facebook’s Oculus Quest headsets. To fulfill the promise of all-day use, headsets and glasses need to be wireless eventually. But after seeing some of the new hardware coming later this year, it’s clear to me that the freedom of wireless may not be worth the trade-offs.
Crossed Wires in the Conference Room
Take Campfire’s recently unveiled headset, which works either as an AR device or, with a quick visor swap, a VR device. That flexibility is offset by the fact that the Campfire headset is connected to a PC with a cable.
I got a demonstration of it last week, in a nearly empty office in Brooklyn, NY, where I met with Campfire CEO Jay Wright and COO Roy Ashok. As they explained it, Campfire is targeting its headset to product designers. The primary use case the company’s pitching is for design reviews; anyone with a headset on can examine a 3D object floating in place above a simple cross-shaped device called the “console.” A PowerPoint-like app lets users flip through a series of 3D models and scenes with their phones.
For all the inconvenience of the cable, there come potential savings because graphics processing can be offloaded to the PC?. Yet the executives are still of the mind that relying on a wire could hold its devices back in the long run.
“We’d love to get rid of the cable,” Wright said. “Especially when you get into meeting rooms and conference room environments, where you've got a lot of people together and we want to switch places or walk between each other. But I think the cable does give us simplicity and the robustness that we need. So that's why we started there.”
What the Steam Deck Means for VR
The day after my Campfire demo, VR enthusiasts on Twitter began eagerly dissecting the specs of Valve’s new Steam Deck, a $400 handheld PC. Valve acknowledged that the Steam Deck can be hooked up to a VR headset via a dock, but the system may lack the power to handle more demanding VR games.
The Steam Deck is using a chip similar to the ones in the newest home consoles from Sony and Microsoft. That makes the device more powerful than Nintendo’s Switch handheld, but it’s still optimized to work on-the-go with a single, small screen. Running any modern VR game would be roughly twice as taxing as what the device is designed to handle.
But some fans of Valve’s wired Index VR headset hope that the Steam Deck is a preview of things to come: perhaps Valve could use a next-generation chip similar to the one in the Steam Deck in a standalone wireless headset. That could be the direction Valve’s headed in (and Facebook should worry about yet another Quest competitor if so), but the idea ignores one of the major downsides to the Steam Deck: battery life of around 3 to 6 hours. Good luck getting an even more power hungry PC chip in a headset to last for a fraction of that time.
The Battery Barrier
The battery life problem is an inescapable issue for any kind of gaming-ready device, whether it’s capable of AR/VR or not. It’s something that hardware makers should weigh carefully against the pressure from Facebook and others that have cut the cord.
The Quest 2, by most accounts, only runs for two or three hours before it needs to be charged. For at least the next few years, it seems wireless AR devices will be even more constrained by battery life: Snap’s first AR Spectacles aren’t available for sale for a few reasons, but the puny 30 minute battery life wouldn’t win over consumers if they were. Batteries also add to the heft of a device, and if cables are a serious barrier to adoption of AR and VR devices, weight is too.
Right now, the quality of the VR and AR that companies like Valve and Campfire can muster on their wired devices can far outstrip what’s possible with standalone headsets. Barring miracle improvements in chips or battery efficiency, that will be true for years to come—and any company rushing to go wireless might be giving up on the very advantages that help their products stand out next to the likes of the Quest.
- Leaks from an online retailer and an Oculus ad that appeared for a short time in a comic publication, before being pulled, suggest that Facebook may double the amount of storage in the entry-level Quest 2 to 128 GB.
- Gorn, a slapstick gladiator simulator, is the latest VR game to sell over 1 million copies.
- Racket: NX, a VR racquetball game, received an endorsement from the International Racquetball Federation. Developers One Hamsa are planning changes to Racket: NX that could see it approved as an Olympic Virtual Series sport.
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CORRECTION: Campfire's CEO. is Jay Wright. An earlier version of this newsletter incorrectly identified the CEO.