#1153 – Technology’s Future Promise

We start the 2023 coverage in full, after completing our extensive IAAPA’22 reportage. Now we look at the first inklings of how the technology and entertainment scene will be developing in this new year of expected advancements, as we cover another mammoth trade convention.

The premium event for all things to do with consumer electronics and technology in general, rang in the New Year as always and seemed to highlight the battle lines for the year ahead. The Consumer Electronics Show 2023 (CES’23), organized by the Consumer Technology Association, took multiple spaces across hotel and convention centers in Las Vegas, attracting an estimated 113,000 visitors. The importance of the event to be an arbiter of the coming market in troubled conditions was a vibe felt across the show.

VR was one of those trends that seemed to be attempting to reinvent itself after years of promised returns, with the revelation that the most prolific VR headset of the current generation, the Meta Quest 2 with an estimated 16m sales, had seen a slump in interest. This was countered by images across social media of empty shelves at electronic retailers in the build-up to Christmas, but these images did little to belay the obvious failure to meet the expected 20m targets for Meta – and an active restructuring of the operation’s Meta Reality Labs was underway. In an interesting example of the confused state of VR adoption, it was revealed that the ‘Steam Survey’ (a barometer of VR usage from the Valve online game store), saw a spike in Windows MR usage via HP Reverb G2 usage, during December. This followed heavily discounting of the PCVR platform. This is an interesting situation, as HP’s discounting came on the back of rumors of their pulling out of the PCVR manufacturing scene. Sources confirmed the laying off of executives, and closing of this division, a year after the new headset was launched in 2020.

The explosion of new VR headsets was still a factor on the CES’23 show floor – although many manufacturers were focusing on Mixed Reality (MR) systems incorporating pass-through, which crossed the VR and AR boundaries. Meta’s own ‘Quest Pro’ platform had been launched only a few months previously, to very mixed results. The major VR competitors had also released their competition to the MR “creativity” platform (still an undiscovered market). PICO has their ‘PICO 4 Enterprise’, while DPVR had their ‘E4’ platform, or Lenovo and their ‘ThinkReality VRX’. And, following this, HTC announced at their CES press conference the launch of the ‘VIVE XR Elite’. All these competitive systems are launched with higher specs than the Meta platform, and all offering the latest Qualcomm processing. CES saw several new entrants looking to cut a place for themselves in the expected continuance of the VR growth cycle. One such is Indian manufacturer AjnxLens with their new ‘AjnaXR’ – another MR hybrid to add to the mix. 

Speaking of VR development, while CES was the first of the New Year’s gatherings, 2022 had ended with the ImmersiveTechWeek gathering in Rotterdam, organized by VRDays. This was an amazing gathering of all aspects of VR, AR and XR – along with an informative few days of seminars and panel sessions. There was also a great presence of the leading VR/AR hardware before the companies made the long trip to Las Vegas. During this event, the first real hands-on of the PICO 4 Enterprise was achieved, along with the latest DPVR and Pimax systems. The importance of the gathering was such that even Meta took a booth and presented the recently launched Quest Pro. The event was more focused on enterprise and practical applications of the technology, with a smattering of VR and AR art installations, and commercial simulation. During the event, The Stinger Report publisher moderated a panel session on the application of VR and MR in the LBE and eSports sector, supported by Backlight, GamesNovelab, Tennis Esports and the Dutch Esports Association. The event concluded with a lavish ceremony for winners of the VR Awards held during the event for the first time. We would like to thank all the team involved in supporting us and running a great event.   

Regarding the use of VR in the consumer space, back at CES’23 and beyond the application in home entertainment, another application was presented with the launch by Holoride of a “retrofit” capability to add their VR entertainment system, for car passengers to several makes of vehicle. The platform sees the connecting of two VR headsets (HTC Vive Flow) through a Bluetooth base-unit placed in the car, and passengers can experience several specially created VR environments that synchronize their experience with the motion of the vehicle – turning car journeys into what the company calls “Virtual Adventures”. Holoride, having been spun off from automaker Audi, has received considerable investment, having also announced in 2022 an NFT component to their concept, working with Elrond. However, the company was now pushing, at CES’23, a retrofit package for all vehicles, and offering free rides to demonstrate the “in-car XR” round the streets of the convention center.

Speaking of automotive entertainment, Sony marked a bold development into the space, announcing at the show their partnership with Honda, producing a prototype of their intended electric car brand called ‘Afeela’. Marking this concept out was the inclusion of an “infotainment” component to the vehicle. Developed in collaboration with Epic Games, and employing their Unreal Engine, the interior of the vehicle has been designed as an entertainment space, far surpassing just the inclusion of VR glasses, but also developing a digital canvas using the gaming engine, supported by multiple cameras and screens, towards creating a “moving entertainment space”.   

In other developments, and again referring to the consumer electronics giant, one of the highly anticipated press events of CES’23 was from Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE). The corporation revealed on the stage that they had deployed some 30m Playstation 5 console units since it was launched in November 2020. Placed into comparison, the previous Playstation 4 console achieved a 45m penetration– and was the first to launch a VR console peripheral back in 2016. Jump forward to 2023 and Sony’s press conference held a parade for the launch of the new system.

With the ‘Playstation VR 2’ (PSVR2), SIE revealed that there would be over 30 games available on launch, all strong AAA titles. Amongst this there was an announcement that ‘Grand Turismo 7’, the popular racing game series, will be a major franchise brought to VR and, at the same time, the company announced a feature live-action film, teasing a trailer for the film based on the popular IP that has surpassed some 90m sales. A surprise announcement for the imminent PSVR2 platform was the inclusion of an exclusive ‘Beat Saber’ game. The seminal VR music game (and the most successful game of this phase of VR, with over 4m sales), is a title so influential that Meta acquired the developers (Beat Games). In a move that focuses on revenue, rather than walled garden practice, Beat Games was rolled out onto the Sony press conference CES stage to announce the million selling music game would be coming to the PSVR2.

SIE held private hands-on demonstrations for invited attendees  – the first true getting to grips of the new PSVR2 hardware for many attending. This was a chance to play the visually stunning ‘Horizon Call of the Mountain’ VR title that will be launched with the new platform in February. This and the other 30+ titles available at launch underpin the VR system as a game-centric platform. A criticism of other platforms has been a dearth of new game titles, as AAA studios waver betting on the still niche VR scene. SIE has doubled down on supporting the PSVR2 platform, with specially curated game content to establish their foothold. In other game related activities at CES’23, Sony revealed a brand-new controller for their console – called ‘Project Leonardo’, the company follows Microsoft (‘Xbox Adaptive Controller’) in creating a range of controllers developed for use by disabled gamers. This furthers moves of greater inclusion for all gamers in the market.

Along with consumer (CasualVR), there was some commercial (SeriousVR) and LBE VR on the CES’23 show floor (and selected hotel suites) as always. Several of the SeriousVR manufacturers of headsets presented on and off the show-floor in Vegas. Companies such as VRgineers showed their ‘XTAL 3’ headset, now with the capability of being standalone (wireless) with connectivity through network to the base-station PC. Varjo, also known for the commercial training and design enterprise approach to VR headsets with their high-end platform, showed their ‘XR-3 Focal Edition’. The quality of this high-end commercial MR platform wowed many more familiar with consumer applications. Meanwhile, Lynx showed their own Kickstarter-supported MR solution in a compact package. The blurring of the XR enterprise application was becoming pronounced in the rush to find a workable business model that will generate revenue. Regarding LBE, VRLEO USA showed what they proclaimed as the “World’s First Self-Service VR Kiosk” with the ‘VRLEO’ making a return to CES.

The use of VR for promotional and pop-up experiences was used as another showcase for MR technology. On the vast Canon booth at CES’23, the company saw long queues to try an experience based in an actual log cabin built on the booth. This was to promote “Knock at the Cabin”, a soon-to-be launched thriller from Universal Pictures. To step into the action from the film, attendees used special versions of the ‘Cannon MREAL X1’ headset in a viewing configuration. The new enterprise focused MR headset is one of the few that is configured for indoor and outdoor applications. The immersive movie experience at CES’23 had the MREAL X1 systems configured as a viewpoint, rather than head mounted systems, tracked within the immersive movie experience, employing volumetric capture. The Canon team behind the immersive MR experience feel they have created a theme park ride for the show, and even suggested the experience would go on tour with the launch of the film. 

The wrapping of brands in recognized nostalgia, especially from the golden age of arcades, has not diminished. And, at CES’23, following on from last year’s 50th Anniversary of ATARI, it was announced that consumer electronics games brand My Arcade had partnered with the ATARI brand holders, to release a range of game units. The first is the ‘MicroPlayer’ (a mini-arcade cab), next the ‘PocketPlayer’ (a mobile gamedeck), and finally the ‘GameStation Plus’ (a TV connected game console). All these units were released with a library of anniversary game titles, emulating the retro originals. Much of the interest in the ‘MicroPlayer’ is seen with other anniversary inspired “mini” game consoles (such as from TAITO and SEGA), as well as the popular Arcade1UP range of mini cabinets. 

CES offers a valuable glimpse into the emergence of new technologies and trends, explaining why so many entertainment executives made the trip to the Las Vegas area, and joined the throngs. And the trends on display included the crossover of technology starting to make inroads into the thinking of future development. One of the best examples was the perfusion of “Wi-Fi 7” – the successor to Wi-Fi 6E, the new application was seen with many exhibitors at CES’23, including Wi-Fi 7 router performance on their booths. This seventh-generation platform offers four times speed improvement on 6E, as well as the ability to handle a new infrastructure and new generation technology to seamlessly connect with. Much of the hopes of “Streamed VR” (VR experiences transmitted directly to the headset in real time) are based on the adoption of new router technology ushered in by Wi-Fi 7. Chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm have already started to develop their ‘Networking Pro’ series of platforms, along with others that will support a Wi-Fi 7 future.

Streaming VR to headsets, rather than depending on onboard (standalone) or connected (wired) processing of the VR experience, was the focus of the announcement after CES’23 by Meta and Intel – announcing a new collaboration to work on optimizing the Intel AX1690 wi-fi chipset for PC VR streaming. Although information was limited, the development will offer an alternative to the wired (‘Link’) and wireless (‘AirLink’) platforms that allow Meta Quest 2 headsets to link directly to PC platforms, offering high-quality VR experiences. The Intel collaboration hopes to offer a non-dongle or router streamed VR solution in a sub-5-milliosecond performance. This is expected to be the start of an arms race in streamed VR support across all the VR headset manufacturers. 

The appearance of Wi-Fi 7 was also hoped to usher in the much fabled “Internet of everything” (rebranded the “Metaverse of things!”), where all products would be connected to the internet in some form or other. Most devices are connected in some way, but with better pairing and channels for communication, this new generation of connectivity will see much more hardware support, including improved connected commercial entertainment systems, supported by Machine Learning. Also, the first wireless power platforms were shown with screens and electrical items, all benefiting from previous developments, as seen with a new breed of foldable display technology. 

Regarding other trends, “Exergaming” was back in the spotlight with the announcement of the ‘PlayPulse One’. This is an exercise bike incorporating controls and HD screen powered by a PC from Acer, to offer an interactive exercise bike experience. This is not a new idea, with similar examples fielded in the gym and consumer sector over the years. However, this version by Peloton, in collaboration with Acer, hopes to build on the home exercise trend fostered by the pandemic lockdown conditions. Peloton has doubled down on specialist gamified exercise games for the platform, and looks towards multiplayer experiences, all supported for a “games-as-a-service” subscription called ‘PlayPulse LIVE’. 

The appearance of Machine Learning and AI in the home has been a constant progression and, now linked with better connectivity, there has been the drive for automation and robotic services for consumer applications. A new example of the application of robots in the home was presented by Elephant Robotics, with a range of home aid robotic arms. Along with this, the company also showed their ‘MetaCat’, a robotic feline pet that offered the ultimate in frictionless family companion ownership. 

While the term Metaverse was not as popular at CES compared to previous years, the ability to place the individual, or their avatar, in the experience was still a requisite of new technology. One such example was the ‘XR Avatar Scanner’, from Groove Jones – seen off-show at the ‘College Football Championship’ for AT&T. The platform is a 360° 3D Volumetric Scanner enclosure that creates personalized experiences, deployed as the ultimate marketing and promotional tool. The created scanned avatars of the guests to the booth were transported and placed into special downloadable movie sequences on their smartphones, using their avatar. These volumetric scanners have come a long way since 2000, when the first scanning booth (called the ‘Personal Virtual Humans’) was launched at the Millennium Dome exhibition ‘TalkZone’.

In Conclusion – The show was obviously a consumer technology foremost event, and the trends in OLED screen, the latest automotive gadgetry and home entertainment, were prevalent. But there also felt to be an air of finality to the event. Where previous pre-lockdown years had seen big showings of recently invested properties, CES’23 seemed to be more a show of proving that concepts were viable and not built on hype. With no presence by Meta, Apple, or Microsoft at the event (favouring their own event schedule), this left the rest to fight for recognition and credibility. 

One such company was Magic Leap, fresh from their upheaval and recent controlling stake taken in the company by the Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund (PIF), as well as the pivot to wholly enterprise working. The company came to CES’23 still promoting their ‘Magic Leap 2’ AR headset, revealing news that they had gained FDA certification for medical usage. All moves to try and vindicate the vast $4b investment placed in the troubled operation. While at CES, a swarm of new stylish form-factor AR glasses were on display from numerous manufacturers, hoping to gain traction in a market trying to come to terms with what this technology offers. Meanwhile at the show, the trend for AR seemed to be pivoting more towards MR recognition. 

The plethora of MR based headset systems, sitting astride the pass-through AR stylings, and full VR experience was bewildering. And to see manufacturers such as HTC, PICO, DPVR, Pimax, Lynx and others move in a direction that has yet to prove itself was concerning. Other new entrants into the VR/MR headset space included private hotel-suite demonstrations from Sharp and Samsung of their headset technologies, with prototype pathfinder and concept slim-line designs. 

It feels that, on one hand, the VR scene is about to enter a new generation (or phase) with the Sony PSVR2 for high-end immersive entertainment, while the rest of the community scrabbles to try and find an enterprise or prosumer audience for mobile-processor (standalone) solutions. Questions raised include around Meta’s trialing of their rumored October release for their Meta Quest 3 headset, citing that this may be superseded by competition. Furthermore, in the middle of this, apathy and financial worries may be the real issues that shape customers final buying decisions.

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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