Back in September, in a period I like to call "the before," I tried out a prototype virtual reality headset from a Taiwanese company called XRSpace. I strapped bulky orange goggles over my eyes and stepped into another world without actually leaving the hectic Berlin conference hall that housed the IFA consumer electronics trade show. Eventually, the unit would run on 5G to better bring that virtual world to me, but the demo offered an early taste of a different kind of VR.
At the time, I wasn't allowed to describe what I saw in that virtual realm or what the headset was like. All I could say was XRSpace wanted to make VR, which normally is a solitary experience, more social.
Back then, I couldn't wait to get away from the packed hordes of attendees and exhibitors. A little more than half a year later, and the world is grappling with a coronavirus pandemic that has infected about 5.5 million people and killed about 350,000. I, like hundreds of millions of people around the globe, have been confined to my neighborhood for 10 weeks and counting. I'm alone. Very alone.
It's in that environment that XRSpace will make its debut.
The startup, the brainchild of HTC co-founder and former CEO Peter Chou, has spent the last three years developing a VR headset and a virtual world that aims to be like Ready Player One -- a place for people to digitally interact and communicate with each other. On Tuesday, the company finally came out of stealth mode by debuting its Manova virtual world and its Mova goggles, which start at $599 for the Wi-Fi version.
(Editor's note: At the time CNET tested the headset, it had the name Mova. But XRSpace has since changed that moniker because of a lawsuit by a company named Mova. XRSpace gave its headset the same name as its virtual world, Manova.)
XRSpace is launching at an auspicious time in virtual reality. Long derided for failing to meet the immense hype over the technology, VR is having a moment as consumers, stuck at home and hungering for alternative forms of entertainment and distraction, are scooping up the suddenly hot headset and taking a second, more serious look at virtual reality.
XRSpace is attempting something many companies have tried and failed: making VR truly social and accessible to the masses, not just techie gamers. VR typically works by blocking out reality and transporting you to a digital world, but Mova brings your friends and colleagues along with you.
The idea of being able to interact in the virtual world is an attractive prospect to many who have been isolated as nations combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Mova headset goes on sale in the third quarter of the year, first on Taiwan's Chunghwa Telecom network and followed by Deutsche Telekom's service in Germany. The goggles also will be available to buy online in other regions, but what you can do in the Manova virtual realm will be more limited. Chou said more carrier support will come later.
"We have the most amazing product I've ever created," Chou, who developed the world's first Android smartphone over a decade ago, said in a video interview with CNET ahead of the launch. "This is truly the next generation of VR for the mass market consumer."
There's no social distancing or Zoom video conferencing here. Instead, full body avatars of you and your friends can move from your living room couch to a live basketball game or a board room. It all takes place in the virtual world called Manova. You use your hands as the controllers, and there's even a 5G version of the headset.
"There's a certain amount of Zoom fatigue, and therefore, people are kind of saying what else could we do to have a more immersive, inclusive, collaborative platform," said Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight. "The timing couldn't be better."
Seeing is believing?
With VR, you really need to experience it to understand it. But instead of a flashy, hands-on launch in February at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, XRSpace executives held video calls with reporters the week before the company's Tuesday digital event.
As a result of the pandemic, I remain one of the few reporters who has actually tried this system, since I got an early preview at IFA.
Despite Chou's grand promises, the prototype headset was similar to other units I've tried. While XRSpace aimed to make the goggles smaller and sleeker than rival products, the orange plastic headset still was bulky. My eyes watered like crazy after using it for about 10 minutes, and I couldn't imagine wearing it for hours -- let alone all day. XRSpace says it has improved the headset since I used it last fall, including adding better padding and creating a white version. Still, no one could describe the look as "cool."
For the final version, there are three models: The $599 Wi-Fi-only Mova and two cellular-connected variants -- one with 4G LTE and the other with 5G. XRSpace said pricing for the cellular models will depend on the carriers offering them. The Mova uses Qualcomm's and 6GB of RAM, and it has no wires.
That starting price, which includes the Manova software, is pretty high compared with some other VR headsets. Facebook's Oculus Quest, the Mova's biggest competitor, retails for $399. It's been tough to find the headset in stock during the pandemic.
Stand out above the crowd
XRSpace packed in features to the Mova to make it stand out from the pack. For one, the Mova is the first VR headset to come with a 5G option. The new wireless technology rolling out across the globe promises much higher speeds and, even more important for something like VR, low latency, or extreme responsiveness.
Offering a 5G version also gives XRSpace something other VR companies may not have: an inroad with carriers. Network providers have invested billions in rolling out 5G, and they've got to get customers to use it. More than anything, they need devices that show consumers why they need 5G. XRSpace's Mova could be one of them.
Right now, a Taiwanese carrier and a German wireless provider are on board. It's likely other carriers will follow -- Chou says XRSpace is talking to many -- and also will subsidize the cost of the Mova hardware to get consumers to sign on.
Another big difference from other VR goggles is the integration of spatial scanning technology in the headset itself. You can walk around a room while wearing the headset to make a 3D map of the dimensions. That lets you interact with the virtual world without worrying that you'll run into a very real wall, and you'll be able to recreate real physical locations inside VR.
"This is a very, very difficult technology," Chou said.
You can put your room in your virtual home and change the furniture, the wall color and add outdoor scenery. And XRSpace is working with a Taiwanese real estate company to use the technology to scan homes for VR tours.
Would-be buyers "don't need to go to check 30 physical places just to look at" them, said Sting Tao, XRSpace's president of platform.
But perhaps the most noticeable difference from other VR systems I've tried is the controllers. There are none. Instead, my hands are the controllers. When I was in the XRSpace VR world, I could navigate by straightening and bending my pointer finger. In there with me, giving me a tour around the virtual world, was an XRSpace executive, Kurt Liu, head of content and third party ecosystem.
"With the hand, you can teleport," he said. "It's a big world in there."
Because our hands are the controllers, we can do things like shake hands, give each other high-fives, wave, clap or even clink glasses. The avatars are lifelike and full body, with high-quality skin textures and natural facial expressions. They're designed to look like you, though for the purposes of the demo, I was a man.
It's Manova, the virtual world, that's the most ambitious part of XRSpace's plans.
A crowded field
Everyone from big, established companies like Apple and Microsoft to startups like Magic Leap have explored ways to make immersive AR and VR products. Chou too pushed into virtual reality early at HTC with the Vive headset. But so far, VR hasn't lived up to its promise, and augmented reality is largely used for things like Pokemon Go or business training.
But that all could change because of the pandemic.
In December, CCS Insight predicted that sales of VR and AR devices for all of 2019 would rise 21% to slightly over 10 million units. Market demand should grow sixfold to 60 million units in 2023, the research firm said at the time. Because of demand during the pandemic, the outlook is even rosier than before, CCS' Wood said, though the firm hasn't yet updated its official forecast.
"It's going to take a very long time for VR to get anywhere close to the eye watering volumes we see in smartphones," CCS' Wood said. "But there's no question that the trajectory for VR is looking a lot more positive than it was a year ago."
Other companies, too, are trying to make VR more social.
Facebook in 2017 created the Facebook Spaces app to let you hang out with your friends in VR using the Oculus and Vive headsets. You could watch 360-degree videos, draw and hold objects and show off pictures in a VR slide show. But Facebook to focus on its , which will let you create your own world in VR. You'll be able to play games, explore and hang out with friends in the social VR world.
"Because everyone is going to be able to create their own spaces and experiences within it, Horizon is going to have this property where it just grows and expands and gets better and better over time," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at his company's VR conference in September.
The Oculus Quest also will have hand tracking in some apps and games, like Elixir, starting this week. As CNET's Scott Stein noted, the Quest's hand-tracking technology, which uses the onboard headset cameras, "works surprisingly well but isn't a full replacement for physical controllers."
For XRSpace's Mova, there will be an optional controller available, but most navigation will be done using hand tracking.
A whole new world
That's not to say Mova and Manova are the same as everything else out there. They most definitely are not.
Manova is a combination of private and public spaces, and during my demo, I see both. When I put on the headset, I'm in the private sphere, a minimalist home. I can sit on the couch in my living room and watch a movie by myself or invite friends to join me. The next moment, I follow my XRSpace guide to zap myself to a T-Mobile-branded sports arena to watch a basketball game from the center court line. The game is real, with real players, and I have the best seat.
"Manova is the first thing you will see right after you put on your headset," XRSpace's Tao said. "In this Manova world, you will experience social without limits of distance."
The private spaces include not only your home but also classrooms and meeting rooms for those water cooler conversations or hour-long meetings that used to take place in person in real offices. The public Manova realm has a central city center hub to play games or watch big entertainment events.
XRSpace isn't making its virtual social environment on its own but instead is working with third-party developers to get them to build experiences for users. Carriers also can create virtual places for users to go, like that T-Mobile arena. It expects to have experiences tailored toward different regions, and some of those could be determined by the carriers selling the devices (No, not even VR is safe from carrier bloatware). But Manova is not just meant to be a VR app store.
For the initial launch, XRSpace has signed on six education companies that do things like teach English; game developers like Futuretown and Rovio's Angry Birds; live-streaming companies like Insta360's travel video; GQ and Vogue with fashion content; YC House for virtual Taiwanese real-estate tours; Bank SinoPac for corporate training; and the Taiwanese record label Wind Music.
And it has a whole wellness area called "MagicLOHAS." It features meditation, a "singing bowl," yoga, "magic tai-chi," cycling, a "refreshing walk," office and full-body stretches, aerobic dancing, body training and brain training. You can meditate on the top of a peaceful mountain or just hang out with friends in a relaxing environment.
XRSpace talking with a Taiwanese baseball team to broadcast live games, Tao said, with users taking virtual seats in the stadium.
The company's Manova wants to replicate real life, unlike phones where people jump between solitary apps. "Meet new friends, join in activities, host your own parties, organize group events, build your own social following, your presence is consistent throughout the platform, just like in the real world," XRSpace said.
XRSpace has big ambitions. One day, it will add augmented and mixed reality to the Mova VR headset to make it feel even more immersive. The goggles will get smaller, sleeker and faster. Chou even expects something like XRSpace's headset to eventually replace smartphones.
With today's smartphones, "humans' interactions and the way to express emotion are limited to the usage of … voice and text and emojis and pictures and video," Chou said. "However ... the way we express ourselves is a lot more complicated than smartphones allow. So our goal is to create this ... very immersive, very interactive [product] to take human interaction to the next level using 5G XR."
To be successful, XRSpace needs developers on board -- and it needs us to believe the virtual world is worth exploring. It's unclear how that Manova digital realm will fare in "the after," when some normalcy returns. But right now, XRSpace's technology can't come fast enough.