As we head into one of the most crucial months in the ongoing development of the metaverse and the VR hardware that powers it, we take a look at the companies shaping these early days with their hardware, software, and services.
We're headed into what may be one of the most critical periods for the metaverse and virtual reality in general.
There's a growing sense that we're at a pivot point in this technology's history, where it will either explode into the "next big thing," or fizzle into the background, the way VR tech has several times before.
The most obvious culprit is Meta's Connect 2022 event, it's expected to see the debut of the latest entry in the most successful consumer-focused line of VR hardware ever, the Meta (formerly Oculus) Quest family.
The timing is excellent as the Quest's global success looks, for the first time, like it may be challenged by Pico. The lesser-known VR hardware maker was recently purchased by TikTok owner ByteDance, putting it on a fairly even playing field with Meta's resources just as it launches a new headset that surpasses the Quest 2's hardware.
Lenovo, meanwhile, is attempting to bring the Quest's level of success to the enterprise with its ThinkReality VRX headset. While many companies focus on creating hardware and software to play games and watch 360-degree video, it strives to build a bespoke ecosystem for companies more interested in VR-based training and virtual conferencing.
And of course, over all these launches looms Apple, leaving everyone guess what it's planning, and when it might finally bring its trademark ability to disrupt a technology to the Metaverse.
So how does this all fit together? We're kicking of this special feature on metaverse with a look at the major players that will shape this moment, and all of the other moments that will define the Metaverse in the years to come.
If you've been around long enough, HTC may be a household name for you because of its smartphones. But, long after the company withdrew from that race, it continued making a name for itself in VR with its Vive brand.
The company's original HTC Vive was a turning point in consumer VR. It was expensive ($800+), complex, and difficult to set up (especially in smaller spaces), but it represented the first truly practical room-scale VR experience available to consumers. Its descendants, like the Vive Pro line, continue to make their mark.
Although its hardware might not be as dominant as it once was, Vive headsets continue to power numerous commercial VR experiences. Perhaps more importantly, HTC already has its foot in the door of the enterprise market, having made deals with companies like Bugatti to apply its VR tech to design and testing processes. This nascent corner of the Metaverse may be small now, but it could explode to the point where it's just as vital as computer-aided drafting (CAD) or rapid prototyping (3D printing).
Another player that was a household name long before VR, HP hopes to power the backend technology that makes consumer and enterprise VR possible. While its early endeavors did include consumer-facing products like the Reverb headset, it has since moved it focus to the enterprise.
The company has already created solutions for VR device management, device and user analytics, and customized VR experiences for training, collaboration, and more. It's well ahead of many other players entering this arena, and has the experience of its vast enterprise technology history to draw from.
While these fledgling efforts may be minuscule compared to things like HP's server business, or its consumer PC holdings, the same could have once been said about technologies like cloud computing. HP has very much gotten in on the ground floor, and it's looking ready to ride the elevator up to the top floor with the rest of the major players.
Another old-guard member of the tech world, Microsoft has quietly long been near the forefront of the augmented or mixed reality (AR or MR) market, thanks to its Hololens line. While the third iteration of the AR headset has had a bumpy road, there's little to no chance Microsoft will abandon the forthcoming metverse land grab that's giving every major tech player serious FOMO.
Indeed it still seems to be full-speed ahead on projects like its Mesh mixed reality platform and Mesh for Teams collaboration initiative. This is likely the best, safest avenue for Microsoft to take into the metaverse. While it has always had a knack for making itself vital to business and enterprise users, its consumer-focused endeavors have been more…mixed.
The past is littered with failures like Windows Phone, the Microsoft Band, and, of course, the Zune. While Microsoft's Xbox brand is the exception that proves the rule, there is no guaranteed path to transition its success into consumer-focused Metaverse initiatives. Microsoft appears to know this and is, at least for now, wholly focused on pleasing its business customers first. Whether that holds true over the long term remains to be seen.
Magic Leap has been around as a company since 2010, but it wasn't until around 2015 that its focus on AR and MR became clear. This secrecy and tendency to "go dark" for months or years at a time is a habit that earned the company a reputation as a constant potential disruptor of the VR industry.
While the reality has been far less disruptive than it would probably like, it remains a key holder of unique technologies and intellectual properties. The Magic Leap 2 headset has recently been released; the unit, which starts at $3,299, is geared toward enterprise and commercial customers. It promises an immersive, practical AR experience in one of the smallest and lightest packages ever, and is undoubtedly intending to eat Hololens' lunch.
Whether or not Magic Leap finally achieves the widespread success it's long seemed on the verge of can't be predicted. The Magic Leap 2 is likely the best chance it's ever had. But, the performance and real-world practicality of the device remain unknown. If it does succeed, the technology incorporated into it could well drive revolutionary growth for not just enterprise AR, but consumer-focused AR/MR tech too.
Another would-be Metaverse powerhouse in the same vein as HP, Lenovo also finds itself with a storied history of pleasing business users. It has based this large and loyal following on a mix of well-built products and high-performance hardware. It's also somehow made people think fondly and nostalgically for tiny red TrackPoints it still includes in almost every laptop, a feat unto itself.
The company's new ThinkReality VRX headset is its first crack at bringing that expertise to enterprise customers looking for, as the company itself puts it, an "onramp to the Metaverse." Instead of the complex hardware often required by other enterprise solutions, this unit tries to do what the Meta Quest did for consumers: condense everything you need into a single headset.
If it proves successful, Lenovo might dominate the enterprise market like Meta has dominated the consumer market in recent years. Of course, this depends on how well training, conferencing, and product development work in Lenovo's VRX headset. To that end, the company is launching bespoke services and software solutions alongside its headset, to ensure that customers have access to easy-to-use, customized VR solutions in a neat little package.
You're likely familiar with Nvidia's GPUs (video cards). It's not surprising that a company that made a name for itself providing input for flat displays would want to stake a claim on driving the much more immersive displays letting us see into the metaverse. That's why Nividia considers itself an "Extended Reality (XR)" technology company these days.
Nvidia's XR aims to power VR, AR, MR, and the rest of the alphabet soup that floats around the metaverse. It also encompasses a catalog of back-end products that provide the video processing, networking, and other technologies needed to bring those experiences to consumers and business customers.
Nvidia's CloudXR is an early standout in this catalog. The platform allows highly complex AR and VR workloads to be processed remotely and streamed to lightweight, low-power headsets via Wi-Fi or 5G. This brings the dream of untethered movement in VR, with full access to the best graphics, into reality. Lenovo is already betting on this, touting support for CloudXR as an inclusion in its ThinkReality VRX headset. If it plays its cards right, Nvidia could come to power a considerable portion of the metaverse.
Pico is not a household name, especially in the US. However, in parts of the world where Meta's Quest line and other headsets have been absent or outright banned, Pico has made a cozy niche. Its self-contained headsets are among the few true competitors on the market for the Meta Quest line, and its Pico 4 is launching with hardware that surpasses the Quest 2.
While the Pico 4's release is a pivotal point in the company's history, its most important moment was when it was acquired by ByteDance, better known as the company that owns TikTok. A huge social media company buying a relatively small VR hardware maker and throwing its massive bank account behind that company's endeavors…sound familiar?
Snark aside, Pico is where Oculus found itself in 2014 when it was acquired by Facebook. It now has the technology AND the funds to compete directly with Meta. While ByteDance has not yet shown the same level of fervor for VR that drove Mark Zuckerberg to rename the company he founded, it has certainly displayed an interest in devouring Meta's social media presence. There's no reason why it won't aim to do the same in the metaverse space.
Perhaps I've buried the lede a bit by waiting until now to include Meta. But, these last two companies, more than any others on this list, hold the power to create seismic shifts in the metaverse's future.
As mentioned above, Mark Zuckerberg felt strongly enough about VR-based media that he renamed one of the most well-known companies in the world to denote that directional shift. It's widely known that this has resulted in more turmoil than the social media giant has seen in years.
Things like the widely-panned avatars in Meta's Horizon Worlds metaverse project have just intensified investor concerns around by this turmoil. Those concerns appeared to be validated early this year when the refocused company lost about a quarter of its value in a single day.
While there are those that believe Meta becoming Meta was a mistake, many others, myself included, feel that it's still too early to tell. Facebook weathered many a scandal and season of upheaval in its time, and it remains near the head of what is essentially a two-horse race between its online ads and Google's. It's hard to imagine any company with as much capital, reach, and influence as Meta being unable to ultimately benefit from a new area of technology it is wholly bending its will toward.
What form those ambitions take should become clearer later this month at the Meta Connect 2022 event. However, we're already almost certain that the Quest line will be getting its most premium entry yet at the event. The Meta Quest Pro already suffered a rather unusual leak that showed it's ready to take on the Pico 4 and other comers. While its specs remain a mystery, the slimmed-down size and reworked cameras seem to bear out rumors about lightweight pancake optics and redesigned pass-through vision for AR content.
We'll have to wait a little over a week to see what the company truly has in store for its hardware and the Metaverse as a whole. But, we already know Meta is in it for the long haul, with billions and billions of dollars at the ready to ensure that its decision to irrevocably tie its identity to the success or failure of the Metaverse was no mistake.
It's strange that a company that's released nothing aside from some iPhone-based AR experiences would have such clout in an industry it's not really part of. But, that's one of Apple's superpowers: making industries afraid of the moment it sets its eye upon their success and chooses to cannonball into the pool they're placidly floating in.
We've subsisted on rumors and speculation about Apple's AR/VR ambitions for the better part of a decade. Yet, we don't have so much as a leaked prototype or "one more thing" tease. That said, rumors and speculation have been kicking into high gear in recent months. Trademark applications for "Reality One, Reality Pro, and Reality Processor" have all been filed by the company in multiple countries.
Most importantly, it also filed a trademark application with the US Patent and Trademark Office in December for "RealityOS." This could be Apple's long-game attempt to stake a claim on what may be a useful name down the road. But, we've reached a point where there's generally too much VR-scented smoke coming from Apple for the fire not to be visible soon.
If the company does launch its first VR or AR headset/glasses in 2023, as it is widely expected to do, it will shatter the industry's status quo in the same way it did when it launched the Apple Watch, iPad, or iPhone. Apple didn't get where it is today by creating product categories, it reached this point by finding existing industries it felt it could dominate - and then doing just that. And it's looking very much like it's about to do that again, for the first time in seven years.