My last Story about my 2020 predictions for AR and VR received a lot of traction. With CES having ended and my first few predictions coming true, plus a ton of requests to provide my thoughts on other technologies I left out, I’ve decided to do a follow up Story. Previously, I’d only mentioned things that I felt 70% confident as going to happen. This leaves out a lot of the more interesting predictions I have however, and so for this Story, I’m going to mention anything that I am more than 50% confident on happening. Once again, do not take this as an absolute, as I plan for many of these to be incorrect still. That said, I still rely on these for where my technological attention for development goes, and hope these help others decide what to work on as well!
WebXR technologies encompass two main areas today: WebAR for augmented reality, and WebVR for virtual reality. WebXR allows for the use of both of these technologies on the web. These technologies have been around for quite some time, but really saw some big gains in their feasibility thanks to the Oculus Quest and improvements to ARCore and ARKit in 2019. While the technologies will continue to improve in 2020 (obviously), I’m pretty pessimistic about the technology overall. WebXR can do some incredible things, and you can create some amazing experiences in it, but there’s two key problems that will prevent it from being completely worthwhile in 2020 in my opinion.
First off, there’s the difficulty of using these technologies. There are many tools that are aspiring to fix this, like 8th Wall which has one of the best demos I’ve seen to date for augmented reality in a web browser. However, consider this: How do I go about using 8th Wall’s technology? Clicking their sign-up button as of this post takes me to a page where I need to give them a bunch of information, then hope that I am given access to the tools, after which there’s a publishing process where I must pay to release my application. Why would I do this for the small percentage of users who would actually load up my website in AR? Even with VR support, this is a tiny userbase, and while their tools sound cool, it’s too costly for such a small purpose. Tools like A-Frame are free and easier to access, but still require a lot of work to do anything of interest in them. WebXR technologies are just too difficult in comparison to traditional web technologies today, and have too small of a userbase to justify adding support to an existing website for while paying for access to “better” tools.
Okay, so maybe instead you want to try and make money off of a WebXR experience, potentially bypassing things like Oculus’ vetting proces for the Quest store, right? This brings us to the second problem: Security. You see, even tools like A-Frame and 8th Wall directly expose their assets in a web browser. This means you will not be able to easily make money on your experience, since someone can just download and re-upload your experience. Sure, you can add your own security and custom protocols to try and prevent this, but this will take valuable development time away from your product, which if it is really worth paying for, can probably make it past the Quest’s vetting process to begin with. There’s also the matter of requiring an internet connection anytime users wish to use your product. The time you’ll spend securing your WebXR experience ultimately won’t pay off in 2020 without some major tools, which doesn’t seem to be on the menu for this year.
WebXR technology is super fascinating, and as a developer, it looks like it would be a blast to play with. As someone interested in the business side of these experiences too however, especially since I can’t do it for free anymore, I can’t justify jumping into the technology, especially with how much ramp-up time there would be to really make good use of these tools. So far, I’ve seen few discussions on the difficulty with getting started with these tools, as well as the security surrounding the assets in these games. I’ve previously experimented with making a Call of Duty like game in a web browser, and it is certainly possible to do today! The problem is that it will be hard to make any money with, and still require a lot of technical work to make possible. While I think tools like A-Frame will gradually get better and become worthwhile for web developers to use, today I just don’t think it is worth the time investment, considering how hard it can be to make money from these technologies.
2020 will see a very interesting social experience appear, in the form of Facebook Horizon. This seems to be Facebook’s challenge to applications like Rec Room and AltSpace, which is unsurprising. While I suspect a lot of people will rail on it when it first releases this year for trying to copy the latter two applications, I think ultimately Facebook Horizon should really scare both of its predecessors. The strength of Facebook Horizon lies not in its features, but in its integration with Facebook’s technologies.
Applications like Rec Room and AltSpace were fine when they first arrived several years ago, however, both applications have stagnated in recent years. I spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to change my hair style 9 months ago when I gave it a shot on my Quest, and ultimately had to give up and ask someone who works there next time I saw them. While the experience is better now, Rec Room is by no means a “new” application. The constant barrage of people invading my personal space still exists today, and is a major reason why I don’t use this experience often. Combined with the poor comfort options for many of its experiences, it quickly loses its luster for me. There’s a bigger issue at play however: Rec Room and AltSpace lack easy ways to communicate with the real world.
This can seem counter-intuitive at first: Why would I want to communicate with the real world in virtual reality? The answer is that you don’t right now. The current experiences have trained everyone to block out the real world, and only focus on the world in front of you. However, when you receive a phone call, you have to jump out of the virtual world to take it. Facebook Horizon can solve this issue, by letting you answer that Messanger call without ever taking off the headset. Need to send a message to a friend about where you’re going to meet up in virtual reality? Just shoot them a link to that location in a Messenger message. They can click on it in virtual reality and join you immediately. This is a powerful ability that, when combined with Facebook’s other services like Facebook Portal, is going to be very hard to compete with if done correctly.
Another major selling point on Horizon will be if Oculus releases the “cheaper Quest” I mentioned in my original Story. While the device won’t have controllers, it’ll no doubt have hand-tracking and 6-dof capabilities. This means that it will still be able to run Facebook Horizon in theory, giving Oculus an absolutely huge potential userbase. If they decide to release it on the Go as well (currently unconfirmed at the time of this post), then this could put Facebook Horizon in a very comfortable position in terms of potential users. While I suspect a controller-less version of the experience would not be quite as good, it could still be a compelling experience, and the ease of things like logging in will give users a big incentive to at least give it at try.
I suspect Facebook will open their beta for Facebook Horizon sometime in late March or very early April (February is possible too, but looking less likely now), hoping to have good results from the beta by F8 in early May. If all goes well, I expect we’ll see Facebook double down and try to get marketers to think about using Facebook Horizon as a new advertising platform, in order to offset their costs of making access to Horizon free. If the experiment doesn’t go well however, and too many features are lacking during the beta, I suspect it’ll remain in beta well into Oculus Connect season as well. Really, I don’t expect any other crazy social experiences in the VR or AR space this year outside of Facebook Horizon. I doubt it will have much AR integration, but I’m less confident in this area.
The Oculus Quest is one heck of a device. The fact that it can operate as both a standalone headset AND a PC headset is an amazing feat, and the recent hand-tracking beta is astonishingly good for such a small device. The fact that Facebook has managed to release the device a year ahead of its competitors just further cements their position as the leading platform for virtual reality. I mentioned on Twitter recently that I’ve been curious about whether we’ll see a Quest competitor this year, and have been mulling around about my own thoughts on this for a while. I’m going to be honest: I do not think we will see a proper Quest competitor (available to consumers) for another year and a half at minimum.
I don’t think many people realize this, but Facebook has poured a ton of money into Facebook Reality Labs, the fruits of their labor are starting to bloom finally. I think Facebook has at least a 2 year advantage on most of its competitors right now, meaning that they can release now what others will in two years time. Michael Abrash’s recent comments further fuel my speculation on this, and I think we’re going to see this in full effect when Facebook releases their Oculus Rift successor. The largest area where most of its competitors are going to struggle right now is ultimately in software (there’s a reason only Oculus has optically tracked controllers with their standalone headsets, while their competitors use “electromagnetic” tracked controllers), but I think by the time a Rift 2 shows up (not in 2020), most competitors will be struggling with hardware too (Oculus’ eletronic, multi-focal plane lenses are the only ones anyone has shown working to date as far as I’m aware for example,).
These advantages will become more obvious in 2020 as Facebook continues to release products that other companies can’t realistically compete with. I suspect even Apple is going to struggle due to their requirement that their products have a high level of polish to them. The Oculus Quest doesn’t seem like a device that meets those standards, due to its lower framerates and other issues that many people are okay with. I think that Apple is going to have a hard time competing with Facebook, as they’ve done a great job balancing the needs of the product with the feasibility of it as well. Other companies will also struggle to compete with Facebook, just due to the sheer amount of money they have. How will Snap compete with Facebook owned Instagram’s Spectacles competitor when it’s half the price potentially?
Augmented Reality Hardware
I think this is going to be by far the weakest area of my predictions for 2020, but I’m going to go ahead and dive into where I think we are headed with AR hardware. I’m going to be really blunt for a moment: I don’t think we’ll see any good AR hardware (available to consumers) through 2021. Companies like Nreal and Kura AR are making some huge promises, but I don’t think they’ll ultimately be able to pull off what they are claiming to be trying to do. I’m incredibly skeptical that Nreal will launch a product in 2020, especially since they just recently pushed their launch back to Spring 2020 again; and Kura AR still hasn’t materialized anything as of this Story, which leads me to be skeptical if they’ll even get a product released.
The Apple “leaked” plans have already pushed back their schedule, and from my understanding Facebook won’t have anything in 2020 outside of their Spectacles competitor, which I don’t really consider true AR glasses, but it is at least AR hardware. Hololens 2 is also already out, so I wouldn’t expect a Hololens 3 anytime soon, and Magic Leap is probably not going to have anything new released this year (though maybe announced; they are a bit of a wildcard). Google has been incredibly quiet on the AR hardware front, but I suspect they’ll just continue putting their time into ARCore rather than any hardware for this year. Ultimately, I don’t think any of the major players will have much this year either.
There is one potential exception to this: The Oculus Quest. The Quest has already shown some rudimentary AR capabilities with its pass-through capabilities, and I think there’s a chance that Oculus might show some new features for this at Oculus Connect 7. I wouldn’t expect anything world shattering, but being able to browse the web while in the pass-through mode would be a great potential productivity tool. Allowing some custom applications to be run in this mode could further create an interesting new application market for the Oculus Quest as well. The technology is all there, the real question is whether Oculus will enable something like this.
Once again, take the above with a much larger grain of salt than my 2020 Predictions Timeline previously. Many of these only have a 50/50 shot at best for happening in my opinion, and I’m quite skeptical about some of them in particular. The big things that I am certain is this: If you’re a new hardware player to the field, be prepared for a highly competitive field. Facebook is probably your biggest competition, with Apple competing in the AR field as well. If you’re joining the software field, there’s a lot of opportunities, but pick your partners carefully. If you don’t, you could end up wasting a lot of time on a dead-end platform.