next-upnext upauthorJanko RoettgersNext Up NewsletterDo you know what's coming next up in the world of tech and entertainment? Get Janko Roettgers' newsletter every Thursday.9147dfd6b1
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.

Pour one out for mobile VR

Pour one out for mobile VR

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up, a weekly newsletter about the future of technology and entertainment. This week, we are taking a look at the history of mobile VR and the strategy behind Discovery's new streaming service. Plus, we've got a special cameo by a certain bearded guy in red …

(Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here to get Next Up every week.)

The Big Story

The history of mobile VR, as told by an insider

On Saturday, Facebook will shut down new app submissions for Oculus Go, the $200 standalone VR headset first introduced in May 2018. This deadline comes three months after Facebook shut down new app submissions for Gear VR, the mobile headset co-developed with Samsung. Consumers will still be able to use their Gear VR and Go devices, at least for now, with Facebook pledging to support the latter through 2022.

But with no new apps being made available for either Go or Gear VR going forward, and Facebook fully focusing on the Oculus Quest, it's time to say goodbye to mobile and what industry insiders call 3DOF VR (three degrees of freedom, with content playing on a sphere around you that you can't lean into). For a proper send-off, I decided to call up Nick DiCarlo, who led Samsung's Gear VR and immersive media efforts before leaving the company in late 2017, to talk about the origins, struggles and legacy of mobile VR.

How it all started. Impressed by early Oculus developer hardware, a few folks at Samsung Electronics America started to play with the idea of building a VR headset that used a mobile phone for compute and display in 2012.

  • DiCarlo likened early prototypes to Google's Cardboard VR viewer, and remembers walking away from demos nauseous and unimpressed, telling his team: "This is a horrible idea, don't do it."
  • Luckily, they didn't listen.

How a mix-up led to a massive partnership. At around the same time, folks at Oculus were looking to source OLED displays for their Rift VR headset. They called up Samsung Electronics America, not knowing that displays were actually made by a separate division of the consumer electronics giant.

  • The mix-up got the two companies talking, and they agreed to collaborate on the Gear VR device, which would use Samsung phones and hardware to run Oculus software.
  • Then, Facebook acquired Oculus, and Samsung was suddenly in business with the social media giant.

How the guy behind Wolfenstein made it work. Oculus had been using powerful gaming PCs to run its VR technology. Making it work on comparably underpowered phones required some serious optimization.

  • But Oculus had just the right guy for the job: John Carmack, who previously managed to optimize 3D games like Wolfenstein and Doom to run on budget PCs.
  • The Oculus CTO worked with a small gang of engineers to crank out the Oculus mobile VR platform. "Carmack was the man that made it all happen," DiCarlo said.

Why Samsung released the Gear VR. DiCarlo's team initially wanted to release the Gear VR in conjunction with the Galaxy S5, but ultimately released the headset exclusively for the Note 4 in December 2014. Back then, Samsung had two reasons to experiment with VR, according to DiCarlo:

  • "Somebody is going to build the new phone." With mobile hardware maturing, everyone was looking to figure out what was next, and VR seemed like as good a bet as any.
  • "It is a hardware-intensive device." Rendering VR required the latest in phones, and VR in general requires lots of computing power and state-of-the-art displays. Phones, chips, displays: Samsung makes all of it, and was going to benefit from the technology one way or another.

Why the Gear VR was a hit. Samsung sold over 5 million Gear VR units over the years, and the buzz the product created was "staggering for what it was," as DiCarlo put it. Plus, bundling it with its latest phones helped the company's core business: "It sold a heck [of a] lot of phones," DiCarlo said.

Why it nonetheless failed. Consumers initially loved the Gear VR, but most of them quickly lost interest in a product that drained their phone batteries, made their eyes hurt after extended use, and never quite delivered on VR's promise of total immersion. "It didn't have that recurring usage," admitted DiCarlo. "It never crossed the chasm."

Why it was all worth it. Gear VR may not have succeeded as a product, but it did advance key technologies, DiCarlo believes. "Gear VR was never the final goal," he said. Instead, it got Samsung and others in the industry to experiment with video pass-through, standalone devices and AR wearables. It also led to the emergence of web-based VR, 360-degree video and mobile chips designed for rendering high-resolution video and real-time animation — all things that Samsung had its hands in as well.

And ultimately, it laid the groundwork for standalone devices like the Oculus Quest and future AR and VR hardware. Even if mobile VR wasn't as successful as Samsung and Oculus initially envisioned it to be, it was still an important stepping stone for an industry that's better off because of it. "We were right," DiCarlo said. "Those were the right bets to make."

Overheard

"Today I learned: Slack is worth 100 Wonderys, Wondery is worth about 6 Serials. But if Wondery had 1 Serial, it'd probably be valued around 20 Serials." —The Moth producer Raghu Manavalan, breaking down the math behind a report that Amazon is looking to acquire podcast network Wondery.

"This is heartbreaking." —VR artist Estella Tse responding to the news that Google is shutting down 3D asset repository Poly.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON FIRE TV

Amazon

The lockdowns this year have transformed our homes into offices, schools, concert halls, movie theaters and gyms. Our homes are working harder for us, but so is our technology. The device that is working the hardest is perhaps the TV—becoming our lifeline to a far more virtual world.

Learn more.

Watch Out

Here comes another video subscription service

Discovery will launch its Discovery+ subscription service on Jan. 4, the company announced at an investor event Wednesday. In the U.S., Discovery+ will offer access to over 50 original shows and thousands of current and catalog Discovery television series totaling more than 55,000 episodes — a catalog Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav likened to Netflix's.

With plans to launch in 25 countries, Zaslav said the company was gunning for the industry leader: "We can be a competitor to Netflix globally," he said.

Here's the thing, though: Discovery+ may be positioning itself as a Netflix wannabe, but it is really more of a Disney copycat. Or at least it is closely following the Mouse's streaming playbook:

  • Like Disney+, Discovery+ is kicking things off with a massive Verizon promo. Select Verizon customers will get a free year of Discovery+, while others will get six months comped.
  • Like Disney+, Discovery is positioning itself as a cheap streamer, with plans starting at $4.99 per month. That's important, because a price like this doesn't make it an either-or proposition for the 73 million North American households that already pay around $14 a month for Netflix. Instead, it becomes an add-on.
  • Like Hulu, Disney's other streaming service, Discovery+ is subsidizing its cheaper tier with advertising. Consumers can get an ad-free experience for $6.99 per month.

Teaming up with Verizon helped Disney+ acquire millions of subscribers, while also generating real revenue paid for by the mobile operator.

  • Disney+ launched a little over a year ago, meaning that most of those promotions are expiring just about now.
  • We don't know yet what percentage of those subscribers will convert to paid plans, but I suspect that Disney's decision to release the Pixar movie "Soul" exclusively on Disney+ on Christmas Day will keep a good portion of them around.

The big question for Discovery+ is whether Bobby Flay and a nature show narrated by David Schwimmer will equally keep people hooked once those free plans expire.

Fast Forward

On Protocol: Secretive audio startup Syng's plans to take on Apple's HomePod. Syng has been operating in stealth, but I found a patent application with a lot of juicy details.

PSVR developers are frustrated about Sony's lack of transparency. Will there be a PSVR 2? What will it look like? We don't know yet, which is why at least one developer is pausing work on PSVR titles for the time being.

More Protocol: Intel has shut down Intel Studios. The volumetric capture stage was used to record AR and VR videos for Reggie Watts, Paramount and others.

Netflix settles "Bandersnatch" trademark lawsuit. The streaming giant has settled a lawsuit with the publisher of the choose-our-own-adventure books depicted in this choose-your-own-adventure TV show. Details of the settlement are confidential, or might hide behind Door B. You decide!

Roku has hired Apple's chief Siri architect. Brian Pinkerton was CTO of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative before his two-year stint at Apple.

Viacom launches Showtime channel on Pluto TV. The free, ad-supported channel features 250 hours of Showtime programming.

Quibi is officially done for. The website is still up and running at the time of writing, but Quibi's app stopped working Tuesday.

Fire TV Cube now supports video calling. It's a very 2020 feature, but interesting nonetheless: Owners of Amazon's Fire TV Cube can now attach a USB camera to videochat on the big screen.

Auf Wiedersehen

Remember that story about Hulu's deepfake ad I wrote a while back? Synthesia, one of the startups mentioned in that story, just rolled out a deepfake generator that lets you create your own personalized video messages from Santa. It's fun, it's free, so give it a try … or just watch the one I did for the readers of this newsletter.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON FIRE TV

Amazon

The lockdowns this year have transformed our homes into offices, schools, concert halls, movie theaters and gyms. Our homes are working harder for us, but so is our technology. The device that is working the hardest is perhaps the TV—becoming our lifeline to a far more virtual world.

Learn more.

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

Recent Issues