ULP Wireless Update

China delivers mobile virtual reality from dream to consumer

China delivers mobile virtual reality from dream to consumer

The new Mi VR headset is designed to work with several smartphones across the Xiaomi range

Mobile VR stands at the crossroads between a niche fad and the next blockbuster consumer tech with the China market deciding which way it goes

Virtual reality may be currently enjoying its greatest surge of popularity in its fifty-or-so year history, but for the doubters who have seen the technology repeatedly fail to bridge the gap between gimmick and game-changer, there is convincing still to do.


Why virtual reality—or ‘VR’ as it’s universally known—has thus far failed to win over consumers is down to no single reason. But the gulf between a manufactured and pixelated digital reality, and the nuance and subtlety of actual reality, has been a factor. To put it another way, VR has been too much virtual and not enough real.


This though, might finally be about to change. VR developers have gone a long way to bridging the reality gap. And China—a market with the perfect blend of financial and technological muscle fuelled by a consumer base with an innate cultural willingness to embrace technology—is backing it.


IT market analyst, IDC, recently predicted that the VR market in China would expand by an astronomical 441 percent in 2017, which is remarkable but even more so when Q3 2016 already saw VR shipments leap 367 percent over Q2. Among the key factors driving VR growth in China, IDC claims, are the arrival of major players, explosive growth for head-mounted smartphone-based units, better content, as well as the emergence of numerous independent start-ups launching mobile VR solutions with the backing of chipmakers.


The smartphone is king

The other clear influence driving China’s increasing uptake of mobile VR is the country’s all- encompassing love affair with the smartphone itself. According to Hong Kong-based Ståle “Steel” Ytterdal, Nordic Semiconductor’s Director of Sales & Marketing – Asia, while enthusiasm for the PC never really took off in China, it has been quite a different story with the smartphone.


“Everything in China revolves around the smartphone,” says Ytterdal. “So when mobile VR arrived China immediately embraced it, and the country has taken it much further, much faster than the rest of the world.”


Given the scale of the potential market for mobile VR in China, it is hardly surprising that consumer appetite for the technology has been matched by developers in rapidly bringing solutions to market; led, predictably enough, by the smartphone makers themselves.


“There are at least ten big smartphone brand names in China, and they see mobile VR is going to be big,” says Ytterdal. “The VR market will be driven by the big companies, but they don’t necessarily have the knowledge of how to make VR solutions, so they are partnering with third party companies and start-ups specializing in mobile VR to access the necessary expertise.”


Beijing-based Xiaomi, the world’s fourth largest smartphone manufacturer, is a case in point. Late last year Xiaomi launched its Mi VR headset and wireless motion controller, following up on its already successful Mi VR Play that was released in August 2016. Within eight hours of the Mi VR Play launch announcement, more than a million people registered to become beta testers. Mobile VR is clearly a market Xiaomi sees as a Trojan horse for boosting smartphone sales.


The new Mi VR headset is designed to work with several smartphones across the Xiaomi range, at a price point that extends the reach of high-quality mobile VR to price-conscious consumers. The headset is accompanied by a wireless motion controller. This makes the most of the smartphone’s Bluetooth Low Energy interoperability by wirelessly transmitting data about the user’s movements in the real world so that they can be mimicked by movements of the virtual player within the smartphone VR app.


The technology to do this without the motion-sickness effects associated with systems exhibiting excessive latency (a key reason for the slow take-up of mobile VR so far) is sophisticated and demands an extremely capable wireless System-on-Chip (SoC). Xiaomi’s remote control makes the most of Nordic’s nRF52832 SoC—one of the most powerful single-chip Bluetooth Low Energy solutions in the world—to incorporate a nine-axis Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) with three-degrees-of-freedom motion tracking, that is held by the user during play to enhance the VR experience.


Xiaomi has also developed a VR Software Development Kit (SDK) for the wireless motion controller, allowing third-party developers to design new interactive modes in their own applications or games, and interested parties are not in short supply. Xiaomi claims as many as 250 third-party developers have already expressed an interest in working on new content for the company’s Mi VR store.


Guangzhou-based Ximmerse, is another firm eager to partake in China’s blossoming mobile VR market, and has also embraced the benefits of a sophisticated motion controller. The start-up, launched in 2015, recently announced the launch of Ximflip, a three-degrees-of-freedom (3DoF) motion controller, and Ximneon, a six-degrees-of- freedom (6DoF) mobile VR kit with positional tracking.


The Ximneon 6DoF mobile VR kit not only includes Nordic nRF52832 SoC-powered motion controllers incorporating magnetometer, accelerometer, gyroscope, and touchpad sensors, but provides a further level of VR sophistication with the inclusion of an external stereo camera. The camera tracks the user’s movements within its line of sight and 120-degree field of vision via a VR headset-mounted LED marker. The camera tracks the LEDs on the headset marker to locate the user’s position in 3D space, relaying the data back to the user’s smartphone via a home Wi-Fi network.


Taiwan’s CyweeMotion Group, meanwhile, has launched a VR remote module, designed to help OEMs develop wireless controllers for Android mobile applications. The VRRM01 remote module incorporates a nine-axis motion sensor combining a three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer, and three-axis magnetometer to track the user’s hand motions using the company’s proprietary, advanced ‘sensor fusion’ algorithm. The algorithm is powered by the nRF52832 SoC’s ARM Cortex M4F microprocessor.


The company’s sensor fusion algorithm generates “flicker-free” motion tracking at up to 100 Hz for a fast-response VR experience free of motion-sickness.


VR comes of age

If a willing consumer base and an able community of manufacturers and developers might provide two key ingredients for mobile VR success, does this guarantee the latest incarnation of VR will prove more successful and sustained than previous false dawns seen since the 1990s? Perhaps not in itself, says Ytterdal, but the missing ingredient then was always the electronics, and that gap has finally been overcome.


“The reason it has taken so long for VR to succeed is down to the technology, but it’s now here to stay,” says Ytterdal. “Finally, we have the technology that makes mobile VR more comfortable to use. You have better displays, high data throughput and lower latency wireless connectivity, longer battery lifetime, and more powerful smartphones. All these things come together to make the difference.”


While gaming has been identified as the genesis for VR’s latest rise to prominence, it is quickly being joined by other applications that had previously not considered the technology worthy of embracing.


“Gaming started VR and continues to make it thrive, but you can also see the technology moving into different market segments,” continues Ytterdal. “For example, travel agencies are starting to use VR and are seeing a huge increase in the number of people making travel decisions because they used VR to visualise their holiday experience before they stepped on a plane.


“Oil companies are also using VR to do repairs on oil platforms. And the medical sector is another starting to embrace VR. Each sector is using the gaming segment’s experience to learn about what they can actually do with mobile VR, and once the technology becomes even better and more affordable you will start to see people take this technology and using it somewhere that hasn’t been considered previously.


“This is just beginning. Prepare to see an explosion very soon.”