All eyes on virtual reality at Mobile World Congress

At the Mobile World Congress event, smartphones are typically the stars of the show. But not this year.

At this year’s show, virtual reality seems to be taking center stage.

For its press conference at MWC, which is held every year in Barcelona, Samsung provided all attendees with one of its Gear VR headsets with which to view the event in virtual reality. It also brought out Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, whose Oculus unit helped develop the Gear VR, to talk about the efforts the giant social networking company is making in virtual reality.

Meanwhile, HTC announced a price and shipping date for the Vive, its rival to the Rift, Oculus’ upcoming VR headset. And attendees got to hear about new VR viewers and cameras that can shoot videos intended for viewing in VR headsets.

Zuckerberg, in his Samsung talk, summed up the zeitgeist and Facebook’s interest in it.

“Pretty soon we’re going to live in a world where everyone has the power to share and experience whole scenes as if you’re just there, right there in person,” Zuckerberg said, according to a report in USA Today. “Imagine being able to sit in front of a campfire and hang out with friends anytime you want. Or being able to watch a movie in a private theater with your friends anytime you want.”

He continued: “All these things are going to be possible. And that’s why Facebook is investing so much early on in virtual reality. So we can hope to deliver these types of social experiences.”

Zuckerberg announced that Facebook has developed a new way to stream 360-degree videos. These are videos that allow users wearing a VR headset to see moving images wherever they turn.

The new technology involves keeping track of what a viewer is actually looking at in a video. The technology will stream only that portion of the video in high resolution, instead of the entire circular scene. The result, according to Facebook, is that it can offer those scenes users are watching in ultra-sharp resolution and it can get them to start playing faster than before. The new method also uses a fourth of the bandwidth previously needed, Facebook said.

The company plans to roll the technology out to Gear VR headsets “in the next few weeks,” Facebook said.

Facebook is also working a way to use VR for communication. The company has created a Social VR team to explore ways in which users of VR headsets could share virtual experiences.

“We’ve already helped people connect in a wide variety of ways on mobile devices — ranging from Facebook and Instagram to Messenger and WhatsApp — and now we want to apply that same approach to the new medium of VR,” the company said in a press announcement.

But Facebook was only one of many companies talking VR at the MWC. Indeed, perhaps the biggest virtual reality announcement at the show belonged to one of the rivals of Facebook’s Oculus — HTC. That company has been working with video game maker Valve on the Vive, a widely anticipated alternative to Rift. On Sunday, HTC finally showed off the final version of Vive and announced when it will be available and how much it will cost.

HTC will charge $799 for Vive, and the device will be in stores in early April. Pre-orders start on February 29.

That price is $200 more than Oculus is charging for the Rift. Like the Rift, the Vive will ship with two games. But HTC will also throw in two handheld controllers specifically designed to be used with the handset and that allow users to “see” their hands in some games.

By contrast, Oculus Rift will include only one Xbox One controller when it starts shipping in March. Users who want a virtual controller similar to those that will come with the Vive will have to wait until later in the year, and they’ll likely have to pay extra for them.

In both cases, though, the price of the headset understates the actual cost of the VR experience. To run Rift, users will need a PC that costs around $1,000 or more. To power the Vive, users will potentially need a PC that’s even more expensive.

HTC, Samsung and Oculus aren’t the only players in VR, as MWC made clear. LG unveiled a lightweight headset called the 360 VR — price and release date to be announced later — that will be powered by its new G5 smartphone. And Alcatel announced its own simple viewer that will accompany its new Idol 4S smartphone.

And to ensure that users have something to watch on their new headsets, LG and Samsung both unveiled camera systems that will record 360-degree videos. Both devices include two cameras facing in opposite directions that record video through fish eye lenses.

Photo: A woman reacts as she views virtual reality through a Samsung Gear VR headset at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

 

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