Virtual Reality had a rather interesting, if tougher than some expected launch year. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift both hit their first birthdays this month, with Playstation VR hitting its six month milestone as well. It has been a very interesting time, with a lot of change and a lot of evolution in the market that has happened already, and a burgeoning revolution seemingly on the horizon.
Despite this, the non-Cardboard sales figures of 6.3 million HMDs has provoked concern, if not outright despair in some parts of the business world, and widespread pronouncements that the “Year of VR” was ultimately a bust, a bit of a damp squib, with some going as far as to read VR its last rites, as if it is 1995 again and the entire market is spiralling to its death.
It is easy to speculate of some kind of VRmageddon which puts the technology out to pasture again, possibly even for good this time. Before you wave the white flag and pack up the headset, allow me to argue that far from dying, there is more to be positive about VR than ever and plenty of things the naysayers are not keeping in mind. With that in mind, here are the top five reasons why VR is not waning but in the wake of a boom period in 2017:
5: Big Names and Big Potential
Hollywood has fallen in love with VR. Ridley Scott has created a new studio dedicated to it, Kathryn Bigalow has started experimenting with it, Tribeca festival was dominated by all manner of artistic uses of the medium, and Patrick Osborne’s VR animation Pearl was the first VR field to receive an Oscar nomination. Along with that, David Attenborough is working on a VR nature documentary, Buzz Aldrin used VR as a manifesto to get the human race to Mars and John Terry even tried to teach us to play football in VR (the key word being “try” there). There’s a lot of support and big investment behind the technology like never before.
Now that’s not to say Hollywood have always backed the winning technology. During the big Multimedia bubble of the early 1990s, Hollywood backed increasingly ludicrous projects integrating video games and films, taking advantage of neither medium’s advantages. Then there was 3D cinema, which despite maybe half a dozen attempts over half a century never managed to have a successful shelf life and replace 2D cinema.
That said, they are making the right noises, the technology has caught up to the point that there are easy and standard ways to shoot in VR and design experiences for VR that there simply didn’t exist in the past, and so directors and designers are free to experiment with an entirely new storytelling medium.
4: Defragmenting the Market
The big issue outside of simply the technology being too new in the past for Virtual Reality was that there were a dozen different ways companies tried to make things work, all of which were essentially working from scratch. In 2017, there are all manner of uniform cross-compatible development platforms to work from, on top of the work of the Khronos Group and OpenXR, a royalty free cross-platform industry wide movement dedicated to removing a lot of the issues with porting games, software and experiences to different VR platforms. With this, production costs will drop and this will lessen the time and sales it will take for the market to be solvent.
It’s an excellent plan, especially given the involvement of every major VR company right now, including Oculus, HTC, Valve, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Google and Samsung, as well as chip manufacturers QualComm and graphics card manufacturers Nvidia and AMD. It essentially aims to solve the problem of having a mess of incompatible headsets by having a standard every developer works with, which can then be ported across easily to any other device that uses that standard. While VR is very much in a gestation period, initiatives like this will be vital.
3: The technology will rapidly evolve
Virtual Reality is in a period of rapid development, which in part is the reason why audiences haven’t adopted the technology early. Unless you are already invested in VR, there isn’t major incentive to spend £500 for an Oculus Rift or £800 for a HTC Vive along with whatever the price ends up being to upgrade your computer. It is very much an early adopter’s market, which is awesome for all of us here interested in VR, but isn’t quite as much of a warning sign to investors outside of VR than one would think.
It is telling that the biggest selling tethered HMD, Sony’s Playstation VR, is also the cheapest for a complete unit (£350 on its own, with PS4s going for less than £200 if you shop around), as well as being attached to a console, thus guaranteeing that it won’t be rendered obsolete for a while, at least until the PS5 comes out. However, with more open standards and with the ever increasing knowledge of what can make Virtual Reality experiences more and more immersive, there will be more and bigger developments.
There won’t be a day this year where we don’t have a “wow, look what we can now do in Virtual Reality” moment.
2: A solid foundation and sustainable growth
Plenty of economists have been pointing to hard numbers and tutting at the “disappointing” sales figures. 11 million VR headsets were sold, although only 1.6 million of those were dedicated VR devices. This is being interpreted as a harbinger of pretty terrible things, but let’s break that down a little bit.
While Virtual Reality can be traced as far back as the Sensorama, 2016 is essentially a new beginning for the technology, and Virtual Reality in this new, far more credible form is a new emerging technology. It is a technology that right now is asking early adopters to put down quite a bit of money to support an ecosystem that is still just sprouting up and hasn’t yet bloomed. We are in a phase currently where the focus is only just shifting from how existing games can be given Virtual Reality augmentation, while seeing small tests and experiences that give users just a taste of the potential of VR.
Compare for example Oculus’ banner titles, starting with the perfectly acceptable platformer Lucky’s Tale, which while nice didn’t do anything you couldn’t do with conventional controls outside of VR. Then consider Oculus’ latest banner title, Epic Games’ excellent visceral FPS Robo Recall, which is a lot more creative and ambitious in scope, and shows off far more creative features. It is far closer to the killer app Oculus needs – a wild and crazily fun affair that shows off incredibly vivid and detailed graphics and a control system and gameplay that needs Virtual Reality in order to be done effectively.
The point is that VR is expanding and enhancing in some rather impressive and inventive ways even within the year since the big three commercial HMDs (Rift, Vive, PSVR) were released, and early signs suggest that while it is unlikely to be a gold rush economy, at least not yet, the speculation that the market will be worth as much as $162 Billion by 2020 isn’t outside the realms of possibility. The key will be when, rather than if Virtual Reality steps out of the early adoption phase and what form the market will take even in a year from now.
The advances in technology and its rapid evolution brings the most important reason why VR is on its way to booming:
1: The prices will drop, and drop a lot
VR demands high prices. That is something that has always been true, and while more technically affordable now than VR ever has been before, it is something that is very much a deal breaker for a lot of people considering virtual reality, more than pretty much anything else needs to be experienced to really be believed. The gulf in price and indeed quality between the Cardboard Mobile VR experiences, which are at best a novelty (the Viewmaster VR being a novelty I desperately want) to your main three HMDs is gigantic, so right now the experience most VR users get isn’t representative of just how impressive VR is right now. Not to mention the cost of a decent PC just to get VR experiences running.
The winds may be changing on that however. Oculus has lowered the price of both their headset and motion controllers, there are more SteamVR HMDs on the horizon that will force the price of the Vive lower once they start reaching shelves, and there are various attempts out there and on their way to provide higher end VR on a budget:
There is the OSVR initiative, a series of low end HMDs designed to be upgradeable and modifiable, which may cut the cost if you’re willing to experiment and play about with settings to get anything other than Redout to run on it.
Then there is Riftcat, a paid-for app which connects a Cardboard or GearVR enabled phone to your computer to allow you to try VR for cheaper, although Riftcat’s attempts to emulate headtracking with the gyroscope may cause problems depending on your phone, headset and computer setup.
Along with this, as the Playstation 4 gets cheaper that becomes a lot more reasonable an option, particularly since at time of writing the PS4 is the most successful console of this current generation.
There is a lot to be positive about, and a lot of things on the horizon that means Virtual Reality will only get bigger and bigger.