In a bombshell announcement yesterday at Google I/O surrounding Qualcomm’s design for standalone Daydream VR headsets, it was revealed that HTC is making one of the two first headsets on the Snapdragon 835 VR platform. These are standalone headsets--self-contained and untethered, meaning that all of the system components are on the HMD itself.
It’s hard to overstate how important that is; untethered VR is one of the next holy grails in the VR industry. And HTC is about to beat Oculus to the punch.
Oculus' Untethered Rift
The fact that HTC is getting untethered before Oculus is a bit ironic. Back at Oculus Connect 3 in October, Oculus showed a prototype of an untethered, self-contained version of the Rift called Project Santa Cruz. It offered inside-out tracking , but it didn’t include any kind of passthrough or facsimile of any part of your body. Although it let you walk around within a virtual world, you couldn’t interact with anything in that world. There was a Guardian system, but because the virtual world had no relation to the real one (other than what seemed like fairly accurate 1:1 travel), we had to move about with great trepidation.
Project Santa CruzFunny enough, while we were in that demo, John Carmack was on the OC3 stage talking about what VR needed to get mobile generally, and specifically about Project Santa Cruz. To quote ourselves from that article:
[John Carmack] seemed to confirm what we suspected--that it runs on fundamentally mobile hardware--but he discussed how Project Santa Cruz can get more from a mobile SoC than a phone can. For example, phones are phones first. Many are provided by carriers, they have baseband processing that hogs resources, they have bloatware (some of it from carriers), they have much happening in the background like Wi-Fi and GPS, and all of these things consume power and many of them cause thermal problems when you’re trying to render video, and so on. VR engineers, he said, can make use of only about one third of the total power resources of the SoC on a phone.
That’s exactly what HTC is doing with the Qualcomm-based VR platform.
Phone Hardware, No Phone
We do not yet have full specifications on these new HMDs, but they’re built on the Snapdragon 835 SoC--which is a mobile SoC. Because (it appears) that these HMDs have ditched the telephony aspects of the chip, it would seem that Qualcomm has followed Carmack’s suggestions to the letter. And because HTC is building an HMD based on Qualcomm’s platform, Oculus’ main competitor beat it to its own stated goal.
There is one big, fat caveat though: The new untethered HTC device (HTC says it’s part of the Vive family, so it will presumably carry that nomenclature to some extent) is built for Google’s Daydream--so, essentially, Android. That could mean the content for this HMD is locked to the Daydream content pipeline, which would mean all those VR experiences on Steam VR are unavailable on this device.
If that’s the case, Oculus has nothing to worry about. All it means is that HTC has expanded to a new platform; the Oculus vs. Vive battle on the PC desktop remains unchanged. However, we find it hard to believe that HTC is building VR hardware just to lock itself into a whole new content ecosystem. Viveport, the company's VR platform, could help mitigate that problem by offering more ways to get VR experiences onto this new device. It's not clear if Viveport will head to this device, however, or how much control Google will exert over software distribution.
Even so, it’s important that HTC is, at the very least, not limiting itself to tethered desktop territory in VR. It will now have an untethered, self-contained VR HMD that consumers can buy “later this year.” Oculus does not.