4 min

Meta is renaming its VR platform to Meta Horizon OS and opening it up to third parties. Meta, leading sales figures in VR hardware by a country mile, hopes to create an ecosystem around its OS. Microsoft, Lenovo and Asus are already shuffling in.

Previously, the operating system for Quest headsets was referred to simply as Quest VR OS. The name change comes with an opening up to third parties, although the OS remains an in-house solution from Meta.

The new headsets have different purposes. Microsoft, through its own Xbox team, is building a “limited-edition” Meta Quest. In itself, this is hardly remarkable. The introduction of cloud gaming service Xbox Cloud Gaming in beta on Horizon OS already showed Microsoft’s commitment in this area. That company will presumably abandon its own VR operating system after it pulled the plug on Windows Mixed Reality in late 2023.

Lenovo, meanwhile, is building on previous initiatives in this area. For example, it helped Meta design the Oculus Rift S, released in 2019. Before that, it also built its own Windows Mixed Reality headset in the form of the Explorer, but that was only a minimal modification of the reference design from Microsoft. Since the entire Windows Mixed Reality flopped, the sales figures will not have been staggeringly good. Lenovo is targeting “productivity, learning, and entertainment” with its future offering.

Asus is opting for a variant under the Republic of Gamers (ROG) banner and is going to build a “performance” gaming headset. It is an extension of hardware initiatives like the gaming handheld ROG Ally. There, Steam OS was chosen to run on the device; again, Asus is reaching for an off-the-shelf OS.

Horizon OS: the Android of VR?

Horizon OS is the beating heart of all Meta Quest headsets. Although they are typically marketed as gaming devices, CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions have long been a lot broader. The “metaverse” is supposed to represent a full-fledged virtual world that coexists with the physical one. The goal is to blur the barrier between these worlds as much as possible, so that, for example, international videocalls are almost as valuable as physical meetings.

Een vrouw die een vr-headset aan een bureau gebruikt, communiceert met 3D-architectuurmodellen en een digitale assistent die op holografische schermen wordt weergegeven.
Source: Meta

The promise of a VR revolution is still unfulfilled. The metaverse promises all sorts of things, but has little to show for it yet. There are certainly useful applications that are actually being used. For example, Airbus revealed years ago that it is using HoloLens headsets to assist in aircraft construction. In addition, corporate executives can use this technology to get a glimpse of architectural designs, car development and other spatial concepts, among other things. In short, VR as a concept makes sense; it’s just a question of whether that translates to a broader market.

Still, Meta’s position is crucial, as it is the only one with a sizable installed base of virtual reality users. Compared to Apple, which scored high marks with its sophisticated but prohibitively expensive Vision Pro headset, Meta has much more experience in providing VR hardware.

Also read: Apple improves business potential Vision Pro with acquisition DarwinAI

With this new move toward an ecosystem of partners, Zuckerberg’s company is positioning itself as effectively the Android of VR. Should Apple eventually run cheaper non-Pro variants on visionOS, this contrast will become even clearer. Apart from these two parties, there is only Valve’s SteamVR operating system, but that is entirely focused on gaming. Only Apple and Meta have any kind of hope of turning VR into a success in a professional setting as well as in the wider market.

End to segmentation

The move is also much needed, because without consolidation, there will never be a mature VR ecosystem. Until now, virtual reality has suffered from a twofold adoption problem: the devices are expensive and niche on the one hand, and on the other hand there is no clear focal point to build VR apps for. The result is that apps are either exclusive to, say, Horizon OS or fall far short of realizing the potential of the VR capabilities per platform. Indeed, each operating system employs significantly different control options, which would ideally require unique app designs.

Naming is another issue. Meta opts for “mixed reality,” while Apple uses “spatial computing” to signify the concept behind 3D interaction with apps. In the end, we’ll wait to see which term actually survives. Sony and Siemens recently talked about the “industrial metaverse” when introducing business VR glasses, so the metaverse name may survive for a while. The actual usefulness of this hardware outside of niche use cases may also finally crystallize now that Horizon OS is the VR home for any app developer that isn’t Apple-bound.

Tip: Meta unveils powerful open-source model Llama 3 and chatbot Meta AI