I spent the last few months traveling around the world with the LenovoMirage Camera and the Mirage Solo. I’m reviewing these two devices together because I believe that their fates are intertwined. I am also going to provide commentary on Google GOOGL +0.52%’s strategy as well because these devices are the flagship products for Google’s Daydream platform. Since Lenovo is the only company to develop both a headset and camera for Daydream, Google’s involvement in the development is significant.
The Mirage Solo
The future of mass-market VR and will be standalone, as I’ve written before. The Mirage Solo is a standalone headset, containing everything one needs for a VR experience within the headset itself—no PC required. Additionally, the Mirage Solo is a 6-DoF headset. This means one can move around the room while using it, instead of having to be seated (like the phone-based Daydream solutions or the Oculus Go). The Mirage Solo sports a Qualcomm QCOM -0.16% Snapdragon 835 processor, which puts it on par with last year’s smartphone processors in terms of graphics horsepower.
One of the flaws of the Mirage Solo is that it has a 3-DoF controller, which means that you only have one hand present in the experience. You basically use the controller at one point in space while you move around with the headset and controller. I think this detracts from the experience and ultimately hurts the immersiveness of the solution. However, Google acknowledges this and is working with Lenovo to enable 6-DoF controllers. In my opinion, hand tracking should actually be the base-level user interface of all standalone XR devices. It doesn’t have to be full 10-finger hand tracking, though that would be nice. The hand tracking just has to allow users to gesture and control the headset without a controller, in case you forget yours (like I have done more than once).
Lenovo also deserves credit for implementing memory cards and USB Type-C connectivity with the Mirage Solo and Mirage Camera. It makes it incredibly easy to charge both devices, and also makes it really easy to show footage from the camera on the headset in full quality. The overall design of the Mirage Solo headset is attractive—futuristic but not intimidatingly so. However, like many other headsets, it has portability issues. With its rigid head strap and the large visor, it takes up a lot of volume inside of a backpack and is difficult to take on-the-go. Portability (rather, the lack thereof) is one of the biggest impediments standing in my way of using VR everywhere I go. The most portable device to date is the Oculus Go, but even that gets left behind quite a bit.
While the Mirage Solo is a good, ergonomic piece of hardware, it is the only standalone headset on Google’s Daydream platform. That’s a problem for Lenovo and Google. Google’s success has always been in its ability to build an ecosystem with mass and scale. With the fragmentation of Daydream, Google appears to be repeating the mistakes it made with Project Tango.
This device’s future is fully dependent on Google’s commitment to XR and standalone VR. While Google hasn’t said that it is backing off VR or XR, its inability to get other standalone headsets to adopt Daydream speaks volumes. That being said, there are some good things in the works for the standalone Daydream platform—for example, 6-DoF controllers that enable two-hands of presence and ARCore capabilities (which will make it more of an XR headset). Google must stay committed to the platform and work to bring more partners and developers into the ecosystem.
The Mirage Camera
Built to Google and YouTube’s VR180 specification, the Mirage Camera is a screenless companion to the Lenovo Mirage Solo. I will admit, I was a skeptic of the VR180 initiative from Google and YouTube because I believed that 360 was superior for immersion and I still do. However, the practicality and difficulty of shooting 360 footage and creating content people want to watch with it is challenging for most of the industry. So, many of them asked for something that they had more creative control of where the user is looking and thus VR180 was born. While I agree that pointing the viewer in the right direction is a good idea, VR180 in my opinion breaks immersion because if you look anywhere other than dead center of the video, you end up seeing blurry edges which causes you to lose immersion. I believe a happy medium between 360 and 180 exists and I suspect its somewhere around 240 which still allows for a camera operator to be hidden and doesn’t require too many camera sensors or lenses.
The Mirage Camera features two 4K camera sensors placed apart to mimic the human eyes, with a 180-degree field of view and 3D. It is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 626 processor, which is part of Qualcomm’s smart camera platform. Footage taken by the camera looks great, and downloading it to a phone is a breeze. Uploading the content to YouTube is also incredibly easy through the app—Google handles the conversion effortlessly. The camera takes stills and videos, and does live streams (though admittedly, I haven’t used this feature). It has a tripod mount on the bottom, which allows you to set it down and shoot things without getting a table-top or ground-up perspective. The microphone also seems to do a pretty good job of capturing high enough quality audio. However, I have only use the stills and video capabilities because I’m not even sure who I would be streaming to if I were to live stream.
I found the lack of a screen inhibiting, making it very hard to frame shots correctly. While there is a smartphone app for this, it is cumbersome having to hold both a phone and the camera when taking pictures. I recognize that not having a screen results in a thinner and more power efficient device, but not being able to see what I’m looking at has resulted in some less than optimal footage. Google partners with another company on the VR180 camera platform, YI, which makes a camera with a screen. The downside is that this device costs 50% more, making it a rather tough sell.
Lack of screen aside, The good thing about the Mirage Camera is that it has a tripod mount on the bottom so you can set it down and shoot things with it without getting a table-top or ground-up perspective. The microphone also seems to do a pretty good job of capturing high enough quality audio that it adds to the immersion.
Now, when you capture footage on the Mirage Camera and play it back for people in the Mirage Solo, you get a glimpse of what the future holds. The image quality is fantastic and the 3D adds that extra level of immersion that 2D video simply can’t do. I have had numerous people comment to me that they’ve never before seen anything so realistic. Clearly, Lenovo and Google are onto something with the Mirage Solo and Mirage Camera, but they both have to continue to commit to the platform. , the real question is whether Google will stick to it. Furthermore, how will Google improve the current state of affairs with their partners and convince others to follow in Lenovo’s footsteps. I have to be perfectly honest with you, Lenovo is by far one of the most ambitious of Google’s partners. Lenovo was the first and only one to build a Tango phone. They were also the first to build the standalone Daydream Mirage Solo and they also were the first to do the Mirage Camera. Lenovo’s ambitiousness is not limited to Google either, they’ve gone heads forward into promising new platforms and continue to do so like with the Microsoft Holographic headsets and Windows on Snapdragon. Lenovo is willing to take risks—it was the first and only one to build a Tango phone, and has leaped head first into other promising new platforms such as the Microsoft Holographic headsets and Windows on Snapdragon. The real question is whether Google is equally willing to take risks and stick it out with XR and VR.
The Lenovo Mirage Solo and Lenovo Mirage Camera are both great pieces of hardware that are heavily dependent on Google’s software and ecosystem. In my opinion, when these two devices are used together you can transport friends and family virtually wherever you want to. I am really hoping that Google figures out how to attract a broader set of partners to adopt the Daydream platform, because Lenovo’s first attempt is a pretty good one.