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It has been a funny old year in the Android TV world. One which makes it a little difficult to really draw firm conclusions on going forward. For instance, the Android TV market is certainly one that has expanded over the past twelve months. However, it is also one that in some ways, has contracted as well. What is certainly clear, is that in the last twelve months the software side of things has changed considerably and now the number of apps and services that are available for Android TV, dwarfs the level that was on offer this time last year. So from the user experience perspective, 2016 has been a very good year for Android TV and it seems likely that 2017, will be even better. When looking back over 2016, where the real debate is going to lie 每 is how the hardware side of the market has conducted itself.

Xiaomi Mi Box


While the Android TV interface has exploded with new options, the hardware side has been quite a different story altogether. There has been some new hardware coming through this year, but probably not as much as the average Android TV consumer would have liked or expected. For instance, on the TV box side, there has only really been one major device released this year (in the US at least) and this was the Xiaomi Mi Box. The good news is that the Mi Box did come to market as a device which is priced considerably more competitive than the other options. Which is very good news for consumers who are not looking to spend so much on Android TV, but are looking to try the platform out. In the very shortest of terms, the arrival of the Mix Box has created a nicely-priced gateway device to Android TV and this is certainly good for the market overall. But that is largely it when it comes to TV boxes and even the Mi Box took its time in arriving as it did not become available to buy in the US until the start of October. Up until then, there was no new arrivals in the box hardware department.

 


Sony Android TV

However, this year has seen quite a few TVs that are powered by Android TV coming through. Almost right at the start of 2016 (during CES in fact), Sony announced their latest 4K Android TV sets. Ones that have since become available to buy. As part of the original announcement, Sony confirmed the arrival of quite a few new models, which also included quite a few different sizes of each model. Resulting in an instant increase to the number of Android TV sets available to buy in 2016, ones which span different consumer needs and of course, different price points.

 

RCA Android TV

By April, the number of announced TV sets powered by Android TV grew even more when RCA announced that they were bringing their range of Android TV sets to market. Which was of particular importance, as the RCA range is significantly more affordable than the options from the likes of Sony and SHARP. So the arrival of the RCA devices, meant that like the Mi Box, there was now a decent entry-level for TVs that are powered by Android TV. In fact, the most affordable of the RCA options was priced as low as $499.99. Which for a TV, which also includes access to the Android TV platform, is a pretty compelling price.

 

LeEco Android TV

Then of course, by the closing months of the year, along came LeEco who held their first proper US launch event. One which made it clear that LeEco was now here in the US and was bringing with them, their own range of Android TV devices. Which again represented a fairly substantial statement on Android TV in general. While LeEco was effectively only announcing four different TV models, they were announcing one of the smallest and one of the largest Android TV-powered sets. So like how RCA added to the entry-level sector of the market, LeEco was adding to both extreme ends of the market. Those looking for an affordable option could go with the LeEco Super4 X43 Pro which is priced at $649 (even cheaper when you consider the additional savings available through LeEco*s instant rebates). While those looking for the absolute best in class could go for the LeEco uMax 85. Although this one comes with a fairly substantial $4,999 price tag, it also does comes packing the specs. Including an 84.5-inch screen, a 4K Ultra-HD (3840 x 2160) Resolution, 4GB RAM, 64GB Flash Storage, an Mstar 6A938 processor, Harmon Kardon Audio, and much more. So while it is expensive, you are getting what you pay for. More importantly, it caters to the premium end of the Android TV price spectrum.

 

Gone too soon

Of course, 2016 was not without its casualties either. As very early into the year it became abundantly clear that the Android TV box that started the consumer movement off, the Nexus Player, was disappearing from the stage. An aspect which became fact when Google confirmed the discontinuing of the Nexus Player in May of 2016. Since then, and while still unconfirmed by the actual manufacturers, it does seem as those the other big-hitting boxes of 2015 have also been effectively discontinued now. Both the Razer Forge TV and the NVIDIA SHIELD are generally (and consistently) unavailable to buy. Which is always the best indication of whether a device has been (or is about to be) discontinued. So while there is a lack of an official confirmation on the discontinuation of these two boxes, to all purposes, and like the Nexus Player, they are off the market. Which is what makes the lack of any new arriving Android TV boxes even more alarming. Thanks to the absence of the Nexus Player, the Razer Forge TV and the NVIDIA SHIELD, as it currently stands, the Mi Box is the only dedicated Android TV box that you can buy in the US today.

 

 

Conclusions

So looking back over the last twelve months, it is clear that the TV set market has not only seen a number of new arrivals, but has seen those arrivals periodically being announced throughout the year. Which is important to an emerging market like Android TV, as it keeps the momentum going. Sony announced in January, RCA in April and LeEco in late October. A nice and consistent level of announcements coming through. Which is in stark contrast to the TV box market and does highlight one of the clear inferences that can be made about Android TV in 2016 每 it was the year of the Android TV sets. If anything, it would not be too much of an assumption to suggest that the &built-in* aspect of Android TV is likely where Google sees the platform evolving the most 每 as TVs which come powered by Android TV can (and probably will) become the main vehicle of adoption for Android TV and certainly for consumers who at the point of purchase, are unaware of Android TV. So while it is hoped that Android TV boxes will continue to be released by third-party manufacturers, it does seem to be the case that there is much less emphasis being placed on TV boxes at the moment. Of course, being able to cement Android TV as a built-in feature on many of the major TV brands is definitely something that is good for the platform as a whole, as it will not only lead to greater levels of Android TV adoption but it will go a long way to cementing Android TV as the go-to TV operating system. It just does also mean that some consumers may have to compromise somewhat on the specs or performance 每 as generally speaking (and certainly at the more affordable end of the spectrum), you are unlikely to find many TVs that are powered by Android TV coming with the performance savvy of a dedicated TV box.

 

Wrap up

Overall, and to repeat, it has been a fairly mixed year for Android TV. 2016 has certainly seen the market expand and especially when it comes to the software side of things. Which is in addition to a significant increase in the number of available TV sets that are powered by Android TV. However, the Android TV box market has taken a bit of a slam in 2016 and is certainly one which currently represents a contracted market, with a decrease in the number of available options compared to the year before. On a positive note though, that might change very soon if the rumors surrounding a new NVIDIA SHIELD being announced at CES are true. Although, that is for the 2017 year in review and not for the year that is now coming to a close.

Virtual Reality is ... well, real.

  The last year has seen the launch of every major VR platform, from high-quality tethered systems like HTC*s Vive and Facebook*s Oculus Rift, through to cheap-and-cheerful smartphone-based platforms like Google*s Daydream and Samsung*s Gear VR.

The early adopters have bought in, the launch games have been launched, and now that the initial flurry of excitement has died down, the more pressing questions are left: how will the platforms evolve? What will you actually be able to do with them? And is VR just a stepping stone anyway, to the even more science-fiction future of augmented reality tech?

At its inception, VR is unquestionably a gaming technology first and foremost. The most expensive and technologically advanced systems have an almost total focus on serving the hardcore gamer market. Even the simpler systems, which lack the pixel-pushing power necessary to satisfy modern players, still end up with a preponderance of games and game-like projects, because that*s what*s easiest to build with the tools available.

So the number one priority for the titans of VR is to carry on winning round game developers and players to prevent the juggernaut from stalling. But if the experiences of the first wave of early adopters is anything to go by, that could prove trickier than it seems.

Right now, the pressures of AAA games seem inimical to those of VR. Games for the hardcore niche of the market are often designed and sold around having durations in the hundreds of hours, with an individual gaming session often lasting three to four hours. In VR, as the devices work today, such heavy use becomes physically punishing: painful for the eyes, face, head and neck, as well as emphatically warned against by the manufacturers.

So instead, many of the highest profile games at launch are designed for quick, powerful experiences. CCP*s Eve Valkyrie and Guerrilla*s RIGS both pack intense multiplayer battles into matches lasting at most five minutes, Rebellion*s Battlezone does the same with single-player tank battles, and even more story focused games like Gunfire*s Chronos and Insomniac*s Edge of Nowhere make it fairly easy to jump in and out of the game.

In the absence of the life-consuming behemoths which constitute gaming for a large number of fans, VR development has instead been colonised by quirkier games, often made by smaller studios with lower budgets who can survive by selling games at a cut price to the comparatively small install base of VR devices.


Google unveils its Daydream VR headset

   Google unveils its Daydream VR headset Photograph: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Even those studios are betting on VR growing, though. Dean Hall, the chief executive of indie studio RocketWerkz, wrote that his company*s game, Out of Ammo, ※has exceeded our sales predictions and achieved our internal objectives§.

 ※However, it has been very unprofitable. It is extremely unlikely that it will ever be profitable. We are comfortable with this, and approached it as such. We expected to lose money and we had the funding internally to handle this. Consider then that Out of Ammo has sold unusually well compared to many other VR games.§

Currently, platform owners are subsidising much of the development for VR, in exchange for making those games platform exclusives. But those owners will also need to make money at some point; they*re just capable of playing a longer game than an independent developer.

In that long term, VR needs to be more than an accessory for better games. Back in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg targeted an install base of 50m to 100m Oculus headsets in the device*s first decade. At the top end, that*s equal to the total sales of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One combined, for a device which currently needs a PC to run it that costs more than a PS4 and Xbox One combined.

Of course, Zuckerberg isn*t interested in owning a gaming company, even a successful one. He bought Oculus with the stated intention of offering far more than just better video games. ※Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face 每 just by putting on goggles in your home,§ he wrote in the post announcing the company*s acquisition.

Perhaps tellingly, in the years since, Zuckerberg has spent far more time focusing on Oculus* smaller, more accessible product, the Gear VR, than on the weighty, tethered Rift headset. At the Mobile World Congress conference in February, attendees were handed one to try, causing them to miss the smiling executive strolling past them on his way to the stage.

Last week, Facebook announced it would split Oculus into two divisions, one focusing on PC-based VR, and the other on mobile. It*s clear on which Zuckerberg is staking the future of computing, and it*s not the tethered division which current Oculus CEO Brendan Irbe will be heading up.

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   If VR is going to become the next major computing platform, pushing mobile phones aside the way they left desktop PCs lagging in their wake, 2017 will be the crunch point: platforms like Google*s Daydream, and whatever Oculus offers as the follow-up to Gear VR, need to arrive with the same pop that tethered VR entered in the past year. More, they need a compelling reason for those who don*t care about gaming to buy in, be that experiences like 360-degree video, or social platforms like those Facebook wants to build.

If they don*t, they could find themselves obsolete before they even hit the mainstream, thanks to the new technologies peeking over the horizon. If VR doesn*t charm, could AR succeed where it failed?

AR devices, like Microsoft*s Hololens and vaporware start-up Magic Leap*s prototypes, allows virtual images to be imprinted over the real world. It*s not cheap 每 the developer preview of the Hololens retails for almost £3,000 每 but it fixes a number of issues which hold VR back when it comes to everyday practicality. Hololens users can still interact with the real world, with their colleagues and companions, rather than locking themselves away in a virtual space. That interaction makes it much more appealing to imagine using Hololens as a general-purpose computing system, fitting in alongside your current life.

Or maybe neither will actually take off in the foreseeable future. For the first time in well over a decade, technology companies worldwide are looking at the end of one hyperbolic growth curve 每 that of smartphones 每 with nothing obvious to pick up where it died off. They may have a lot of interest in convincing their shareholders that something is the next big thing, but that doesn*t mean we have to believe them. After all, we live in reality.

   If the future of video games is VR, it needs to stop making us feel sick

The age of virtual reality is upon us (again) with a torrent of devices and content having launched throughout 2016 and some still to come.

There has been a buzz around virtual reality (VR) for the past few years. Some of this has come from the lengthy development of devices like Oculus Rift, but also through a growing interest in what we'll be able to get VR to do in the modern era.

The idea of VR isn't new. It's been circulating in the tech space for a number of years, but recently, the technology has broken through some of the long-standing barriers. Enabling access has helped, with devices like Google's Cardboard opening the door for anyone with a smartphone, right up to demonstrating what a fully-fledged premium system like HTC Vive will be capable of. We now have the power in home computers for lifelike virtual environments and this makes it a much more exciting time for VR.

So, without further ado, we've listed some of the top VR systems available. Their prices range dramatically, and some haven't actually been officially launched yet, but they're all worth being aware of, as you'll be seeing a lot more of VR in 2016.

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Oculus Rift-5
Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift has probably commanded more headlines than any other VR system. First launched as a Kickstarter project and then acquired by Facebook, Oculus Rift is one of the most exciting VR systems you'll find.

The system comprises a headset that's loaded with sensors, offering a display for each eye and integrated headphones. It comes with a camera to add more movement detection information and initially ships with an Xbox One controller prior, with bespoke Oculus Touch controllers costing £189. You will also need a high-spec PC to run Oculus Rift, however, and this isn't included in the £549 asking price for the kit.

The result is a canny VR system and one that's capable of creating some amazing VR worlds and games. It is available from John Lewis, Currys PC World and Game in the UK.

Oculus Rift is definitely in the premium VR category.

Buy it now for£549 on Amazon.co.uk or $599 on Amazon.com
Oculus Rift review: The VR revolution begins here

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HTC Vive

Like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive is a full system VR experience that requires a powerful PC to run.

HTC Vive is different from other VR systems because it gives you freedom to roam around a room. While other systems will allow you some movement, HTC Vive uses IR sensors mounted on walls to map your location in the physical space, integrating this into the virtual world. The downside is that you'll also need a big enough play space to use it in that fashion.

The headset integrates a range of sensors, presenting the slick visuals to your eyes and you have to wear additional headphones to complete the picture. There are bespoke Vive hand controllers and their locations are also mapped within the 3D space, offering plenty of versatility when it comes to immersion and interactivity.

We've experienced a wide range of different environments within HTC Vive, from climbing Everest to maintenance of robots in a Portal-style setting and we've been blown away. However, setting the device up is tricky, so sensor placement is paramount. The HTC Vive is also the costliest option costing in excess of £700. It is available at Currys PC World and Game, as well as Amazon.

Buy it now for £759 on Amazon.co.uk or $799 on Amazon.com
HTC Vive review: An experience that's out of this world

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PS VR-14
Sony PlayStation VR

Rather than presenting a complete VR system, Sony's PSVR is an accessory for the PS4, PS4 Slim and PS4 Pro consoles, meaning it is less costly to own than something like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

The headset itself is just £349 ($399) and the fact that the console is less pricey than a high-end gaming PC keeps costs down further. PlayStation VR uses the same technologies as the others, although its screen resolution is lower than those used by HTC and Oculus.

It tracks movement of your head and uses the PlayStation Camera, in combination with your regular PS4 controller or PlayStation Move motion controls, to present the VR experience. This is an extension of your PS4, which is likely to see it as an easy VR choice for many.

There is a hearty line-up of content available from launch, with more than 70 games and apps released in the launch window of a few months - many are already available. PlayStation VR Worlds has several mini-games and experiences, including The London Heist. Other games include RIGS, The Playroom VR, Batman: Arkham VR and the fantastic Battlezone.

PlayStation VR removes plenty of barriers to virtual reality because it's an accessory to an existing platform. It brings immersive gaming to your existing console and is widely available.

Buy it now for £349 on Amazon.co.uk or $629 on Amazon.com

PlayStation VR review: Affordable virtual reality for the gamers


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Samsung Gear VR 2-11
Samsung Gear VR

Samsung was one of the early movers on VR, launching the Gear VR headset, co-developed with Oculus, and designed to support a smartphone, rather than needing a connection to a PC or console.

There have been a few versions of Gear VR, supporting a number of different smartphone models from Samsung, with the handsets neatly sliding into the tray at the front. Internally there are lenses to split the display between your eyes and with Samsung's latest devices offering very high resolution displays, this translates into slick visuals.

Gear VR is available for around £100, and there's an optional controller too, which you can get for about £70. You'll need to make sure it's going to fit your chosen Samsung smartphone, however, although the latest model, which was launched with the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, comes with an adapter so former Samsung phones are compatible too.

Gear VR opens the door to mobile devices, but you'll need to supply the Samsung smartphone.

Buy it now for £60 on Amazon.co.uk or $95 on Amazon.com
Samsung Gear VR Consumer Edition review: The stepping-stone to Oculus proper

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Google Daydream View


Daydream is the next-generation of VR from Google and the headset is appropriately called Daydream View. Where the original Cardboard concept was about accessibility and laying the foundations for VR content via your smartphone, Daydream is the future for Google and Android virtual reality.

Daydream is only available in the form of Google's own headset, the Daydream View, priced at £69 in the UK, $79 in the US. The View requires a Daydream-ready phone to operate - such as Google's own Pixel and Pixel XL handsets - but comes with a remote in the box. More phones, like the Moto Z are slowly adding support for this growing platform.

The big advantage that Daydream View offers is comfort, built from a soft material rather than hard plastics like many of the rivals. There's a wide range of content, now better organised than it was previously on the Google Cardboard days.

Buy it now for £69 on Google Store
Google Daydream View review: A Pixel-perfect VR experience?


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Google Cardboard


Google Cardboard was first unveiled in 2014, as quite literally a folding cardboard container into which a smartphone could be placed. The beauty of Google Cardboard is two-fold: firstly, the hardware cost is almost minimal, often free, and secondly, it's universal, supporting a wide range of smartphone models - essentially, anything that will fit into the front and stay secure.

Google Cardboard is something of a breakaway success, allowing people to sample VR content (be that from Google or elsewhere), without having to invest in a more substantial system: Google reports that five million Cardboard viewers have shipped. Google has a range of applications for the device, and has highlighted VR for development and investment in the future. Importantly, Cardboard is not only this cardboard viewer, but also the name of a VR platform from Google, now superseded by Daydream.

Cardboard is really an ad hoc VR viewer: there's no head strap and if there was it would be uncomfortable to wear, instead intended to be held to the face to view the content. There are a range of Cardboard apps for content, as well as being able to view 360 environments such as Google Street View or watching 360 content on YouTube.

Cardboard makes perfect sense: if you want to dip your toe into VR, this is a good place to start.

Google Cardboard review: The cornerstone of mobile VR


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IMG_6634
LG 360 VR


The LG 360 VR is a headset that you have to connect to your LG G5 via the USB Type-C cable, rather than slipping your phone into the front as you do with or devices. It takes the form of a pair of glasses, which you wear rather more conventionally than others.

The headset itself has two 1.8-inch IPS displays inside, one for each eye, each with a resolution of 960 x 720 pixels, resulting in 639ppi. Those displays sit behind lenses that can be independently focused (you can't wear glasses and 360 VR at the same time), as well as being able to adjust the width to get the best fit to your face and ensure stereoscopic vision.

The headset also carries the controls for your VR environment, with an ok and back button for basic click navigation. Otherwise, it has motion sensors, to allow you to look around the virtual world you're in.

When it comes to audio, there's a 3.5mm headphone socket on the underside of the 360 VR headset. If you don't use this, the sound comes out of your smartphone, which may be some distance away, or perhaps in your pocket. It only works with the LG G5, however, which is likely to limit its appeal.

Buy it now for £69 on Amazon.co.uk or $99 on Amazon.com
LG 360 VR preview: A unique perspective on mobile VR


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Homido


Homido falls into the category of devices that give you a more substantial piece of headset hardware, but work in the same way as Google Cardboard.

In this case there's a sprung section on the front into which you can slide your phone, and you can then strap the thing to your head to view your VR content.

In this case it's a little cheaper, so you can get your hands on it for around £40, so if you're a little more of a VR fan and think that Cardboard will get too annoying with the constant handholding, then Homido might be a solution for you. It's cheap, easy and widely available now.

Buy it now for £40 on Amazon.co.uk or $50 on Amazon.com
Homido is a universal VR headset for your phone


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HoloLens-0509
Microsoft HoloLens


Microsoft surprised everyone when it entered the world of virtual and augmented reality. It unveiled the Microsoft HoloLens headset, which works with Windows Holographic, a technology that adds 3D images in the world around us all. Technically this is more augmented reality than virtual reality, but it's playing in the same space as some of these other systems.

Microsoft wants to introduce augmented reality objects into every aspect of our world. Obviously, that won't happen with the naked eye, but users wearing HoloLens will be able to see holographic images overlaid onto real objects in front of them (which are projected by laser directly into their eyes). A full Windows 10 system is built into the headset and it runs off a battery, so it's completely untethered.

The headset displays digital images into your real-world field of view. You can then view and even interact with these digitised-objects as if they were in the room with you. Using Kinect-style tech to recognise gestures and voice commands, the system features a 120-degree field of vision on both axis and is capable of high definition visuals.

A Development Edition headset is currently available to buy for $3,000 in the US and Canada. It is also now available in the UK, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland and New Zealand.

Buy it now for £2,719 on Microsoft Store.

Microsoft HoloLens preview: An augmented vision that's still very much in the future


SULON
Sulon Q Headset 04
Sulon Q


The Sulon Q VR headset was unveiled during GDC 2016 in San Francisco and could be a big competitor to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in that it runs on a Windows 10 PC architecture. Unlike those headsets though, it doesn't need a high-end PC to run and is completely "tether-free".

Instead it has the processing power built into the device, using AMD technologies to run "console-quality" games and applications, but without any wires needed to connect it to a separate box.

In addition to virtual reality uses, there are lenses on the headset that enable the user to use augmented reality applications too, in a similar way to the Microsoft HoloLens we describe below. These overlay computer graphics onto real-world objects.

There are earbuds built-in that provide spatial 3D audio and embedded noise-cancelling microphones enable voice communication without needing a separate mic add-on.

It all sounds good but we're yet to see the headset in action even though we were previously told "spring". The price is also unannounced as yet, and it could turn out to be rather pricey.

Forget Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, wire-free Sulon Q VR doesn't need a high-end PC

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