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Will Facebook's Oculus Dash Challenge Microsoft's Hololens?

By Leo Sun - Oct 18, 2017 at 11:32AM

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Facebook’s VR dashboard looks cool, but does anyone actually need to launch desktop apps in a virtual room?

Facebook (META -0.39%) recently introduced Oculus Dash, a new interface for the Oculus Rift which allows users to replace the Oculus Home launcher with “virtual” computer monitors and a futuristic dashboard with shortcuts to various apps. In the short launch video, Dash looks like the dashboard from Minority Report and seems to mimic Microsoft’s (MSFT -1.05%) Hololens.

But unlike the Hololens, which projects digital objects onto real surfaces with depth-sensing cameras, the Dash runs in an enclosed virtual environment that can be used as a real workspace. Rift users can customize their virtual rooms with Touch controllers, then leave different windows -- like chat, music, games, and even coding apps -- in mid-air like multiple floating monitors.

The Oculus Go headset.

Image source: Oculus.

Typing might seem tough in a VR environment, but Facebook has been testing out VR gloves, which can be used to type and draw by tracking individual finger movements. This idea sounds interesting, but I seriously doubt that Oculus Dash will ever become the futuristic computing platform that Facebook is promoting.

The biggest challenges for Oculus Dash

The first major headwind is the soft demand for the Oculus Rift. Research firm SuperData claims that Facebook only sold about 240,000 Rifts last year, compared to 6.3 million VR headsets shipped worldwide. Facebook is trying to boost mainstream interest in the Rift by lowering its price to $399 and introducing a $199 standalone variant called Go, but it’s unclear if those efforts will pay off.

However, Samsung’s (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) Gear VR was notably the best-selling headset of 2016 with 4.5 million shipped units, thanks to its lower price ($129) and support from the company’s high-end headsets. The Gear VR also runs Oculus Home, so it should also get the Dash update, but it's unclear if Facebook will ever launch VR gloves for the Gear VR.

Woman using the Oculus Rift.

Image source: Oculus.

The Rift is also a cumbersome device to wear over prolonged periods. It blocks a user’s view of the outside world, needs to be tethered to a PC with cables, and requires ample space to set up its motion-tracking sensors. It’s highly unlikely that coders would do that just to write some code in VR, or casual users would do the same to use Chrome or Spotify in VR.

The Oculus Go, which ditches the Rift’s wires and companion PC, might make Dash more appealing for mainstream users. However, it’s unlikely that Go owners will see Dash as a permanent replacement for multi-monitor PC setups anytime soon.

Lastly, many attempts to turn computer operating systems into user-friendly “rooms” flopped before. Microsoft Bob replaced the Windows Program Manager with rooms filled with real-world items in the 1990s, but it complicated simple tasks and was eventually named one of the worst tech products of all time by PC World.

Is Oculus Dash the next Microsoft Bob?

That’s arguably the biggest problem with Oculus Dash -- it turns simple one-click tasks, like opening Chrome, into air-clicking ordeals in a virtual environment. It looks cool, but it feels just as showy and superfluous as the rooms in Microsoft Bob.

By comparison, Microsoft’s Hololens is built for tasks that can’t be accomplished in a single click -- like designing 3D models on your desk, requesting virtual support from a plumber or mechanic who can “see” through your eyes, playing Minecraft on a coffee table, and even “teleporting” another person into your room.

Woman using Microsoft's Hololens to play a game on a tabletop.

Microsoft's Hololens. Image source: Microsoft.

The HoloLens isn’t built with mundane tasks like launching a web browser or writing code in mind -- it focuses on next-gen applications that can’t be accomplished with a keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen.

But let’s not dismiss Oculus Dash just yet...

Oculus Dash only looks like a cool parlor trick for now, but it still has plenty of growth potential. Oculus Home has a solid library of VR apps, videos, and experiences, and it’s arguably the most mature VR ecosystem on the market today.

As Facebook gradually integrates new native VR features, like Spaces (which lets people virtually visit their friends as avatars) and social games, that ecosystem should expand and make Oculus headsets more appealing to mainstream users. But for now, Oculus Dash remains a few steps behind Microsoft’s Hololens in the ongoing race to develop a next-gen computing platform.

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