CES 2018, Augmented Reality and Much More
The actual CES show is spread across many locations in Las Vegas. The main exhibit halls are at or near to the Las Vegas Convention Center with three buildings, two floors each, all filled with hundreds of booths. Then there is The Sands Convention Center with multiple halls filled to the brim and hotels with their own convention centers and floors of exhibitor suites. With almost 200,000 in attendance, all locations are very busy. The point is that no one press group can cover it all. What we can do is cover the topics we are most knowledgeable with and most interested in.
In the past, I usually could cover what I saw and what interested me in in three articles, but not this year. There are so many technology advancements, with truly disruptive technology everywhere, that this article is Number 3 of what will probably be five articles.
For the last few years, I have been focusing on 3D printing for PCB fab, along with consumer tech such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality, and autonomous driving. And of course, as building high-end powerful computers is to me like golf is to some of you, I always look for the latest components and gadgets in that arena.
Let’s start with virtual reality, an area that has blasted off in the past year. CES devoted an entire area to VR, and you could find a sprinkling of VR in other areas also.
One of the pioneers among VR headsets is the HTC Vive. This computer-connected device, along with the Oculus Rift, was one of the first commercially available units. This year HTC showed us a new updated and more powerful unit, the HTC Vive Pro. For awhile, we were wondering if HTC was going to stay committed to VR, but the new Vive Pro seems to indicate that they are. The new features of the Pro include the addition of a second camera—not sure just exactly what having stereo cameras will mean, but perhaps it might have something to do with the Microsoft advances in mixed reality which requires a second camera for tracking your position instead of external sensor beacons. This is still speculation however. In addition, the new Vive Pro can now wirelessly connect to your PC using the just-announced Vive Wireless Adaptor. If you are in a virtual world, wireless is a huge improvement. With the new adaptor and the new battery pack, you can now wander the VR universe unencumbered by cables. Believe me, this is a significant improvement. In addition, while I did not have the opportunity to try it myself (I will do so as soon as possible), it is being reported that the Vive Pro displays the VR world with significantly increased sharpness and clarity. They are claiming that going wireless with their new hardware does not add any lag to the display. The reported resolution is a 2880X1600 AMOLED display; this is a 78% increase in pixel count, a significant step up.
An additional new VR device announced recently is the Lenovo Mirage Solo standalone headset, kind of a smartphone in a VR headset designed to work with Google Daydream and WorldSense. According to Forbes, WorldSense is an inside-out positional tracking system, which allows for six degrees of movement (the ability to move freely around virtually any space). What also makes the Mirage Solo a standalone headset is the fact that it has all the processing, connectivity, and display built into it. The Solo is a fully self-contained VR headset capable of operating independently of a connected computer, allowing it to be fully untethered.
My opinion is that we will see. I tend to like the power of a full, high-end computer running my VR experience rather than a less powerful device that requires separate programs and apps designed specifically for it. The Mirage Solo is scheduled to be available for purchase late spring 2018. I suspect that the device will be excellent, but I am not so sure regarding the applications that will be available for it upon launch.
So, what will these new offerings mean to one of the best-known pioneers in consumer VR, the Facebook-owned Oculus? HTC and others have competed with Oculus since just after the start of modern VR, MR and AR. For the last few years, both platforms have aggressively vied for market share in the high-end, highest quality space which caters to owners of powerful gaming PCs. Oculus has diversified its product lineup and seems to be a little out of focus with its varying offerings. They have also reduced prices more than once; does that mean that they are not happy with their market share? I am not sure where they stand, nor what market they are targeting. It almost seems that Oculus wants to dominate every segment and perhaps by doing so may not dominate any. Still, the Rift is one of the most advanced headsets around, with quite a bit of software/games/apps available. But the more advanced previews being shown at CES may change that. We will see.
Of course, there were many, many other VR headset offerings, some focused on specific markets such as medical, military, design, etc. Many of them are quite promising. These include the Looxid eye-tracking device; the Meshroom, which can turn CAD drawings into VR prototypes; and the Pimax 8K VR headset, an extremely high-resolution, with two 4K displays (one for each eye), and a 200-degree field of view which approaches the human eye's normal range.
A newly announced device that is quite interesting is the LUCI “immersion on demand” wearables and VR headset products, also known as "Immers." They are designed to be similar to a pair of glasses that you can carry, with the exception that as a VR headset is opaque, and you cannot use mixed reality (MR) where a virtual image is superimposed over the real world. It weighs in around 185 grams, about the weight of a smartphone—but designed to be as comfortable on the face as possible, and easily put on and removed. The resolution for such a lightweight device is amazing. The target audience seems to be those wanting to view commercially available content such as movies/videos. The device can deliver video in 3D at 4K resolution out of the box and thus will keep up with high-resolution VR content for years to come.
In addition, there were literally dozens of Shenzhen companies showing lower-priced but quite limited devices, although they were seemingly of good quality, comfortable to wear and easy to use. While they are being called VR headsets, in fact what they seem to be are low-powered standalone 3D viewers. As they are standalone, many of them feature only the demo software and perhaps a few very basic simple games (shoot the low-resolution Pokémon-like creature and raise your score). I am not sure if there is really a market for these; a few may survive but I cannot imagine most of them being a true part of the growing VR tech segment.
And there are more additions to the absolute low-end viewing devices, such as Google Cardboard, or another version by company X in plastic, that will give you an intro to VR. But the applications, image quality, comfort and usefulness are quite limited. These devices are basically slot-in holders for your smartphone, which has its display divided into two separate images that the viewer then converts into a decent, not great, 3D image.
Overall, VR has become a valuable and serious tool for numerous industries with better devices, lower cost, improvements in ease of use and applications that are growing exponentially. Unlike 3D TV, I do not expect this segment to go away. It is a topic that I will continue to follow.
There were so many other things to see at CES, including new TV products, the light speed advances in autonomous driving, new computer components, 3D printing, and the literally hundreds of IoT (Internet of Things) offerings. Let me briefly discuss a few topics and items of interest and leave a deeper discussion on these for the next few articles.
One topic of discussion amongst those of us with a passion for computer tech is the recent announcement of a number of the last generation of Intel chips, as well as some ARM and AMD CPUs potentially affected by the Specter and Meltdown vulnerabilities. PC, Mac or another OS are all apparently vulnerable to this bug. Intel CPUs seem to be at the greater risk from Spectre and Meltdown, as the bug is reported to affect its processors most of all. While there is no known malware yet taking advantage of this bug, that will only be a matter of time. Needless to say, all involved companies are releasing patches to negate this bug, but so far the patches seem to be slowing down computers and users have to decide whether they want to sacrifice some performance for security against malware that has not been noted as yet or wait for better patches.
At CES, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich opened his comments with an explanation and a "kind of apology." He stated, “Our primary goal has been to keep our customers safe.” He emphasized, “We have not received any information that these exploits have been used to obtain customer data.” He then said he wanted to thank the industry for working together to quickly address the bugs, adding that the response was a “collaboration” among many different companies. He also asked people to patch their systems as soon as patches become available. “We’ll continue working with the industry to minimize the impact on those workloads,” He added in response to concerns that the patches hurt the performance of some machines and computing workloads.
Each of us will have to decide for ourselves. My main workstation is a very powerful high-end DIY computer, so I will not be concerned about reducing its effective power by 15% or so, but I have decided to wait and not install any of the patches on that beast, for now. On the other hand, my notebook (a Surface Book) will get the patches, as will our other less powerful computers as the data in them is more work-related and thus confidential. I would suggest that you do the same.
Intel then discussed their major breakthrough in quantum computing, a 49-qubit quantum chip with CEO Krzanich calling it a major breakthrough in quantum computing and the next step to "quantum supremacy." This is a future product that we will probably be watching closely in the next few years.
In my next installment, I'll have more on 3D printing, some neat PC components and peripherals, a promise from NASA, and wearable and connected devices. Stay tuned!
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