Virtually Real: What Went Wrong with VR in 2016?

Virtually Real: What Went Wrong with VR in 2016?

-Part I-

As a lifelong gamer, I’ve had the good fortune to work with several talented development teams at Razer, Corsair and Logitech that have contributed to the evolution of gaming control over the last 20 years. So, with all the excitement for the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) taking place in San Francisco this week, I’m sharing my thoughts on the most discussed technology in the gaming industry today: Virtual Reality (VR). What does VR look like currently? What are some problems VR Pioneers are facing? And what can we, as users, expect from VR in the future?

Imagine scoring front row seats to a sold out concert, strolling atop the Great Wall of China, or test driving a sports car, all without ever leaving your living room. If that sounds like Sci-Fi Fantasy, you’re right. This is a very special case of life imitating art: developers and manufacturers are hard at work to make our VR dreams of the last century a reality. Storytellers, movie makers, and artists are already tapping into the virtual field to bring their work to life – for several years now, the annual Sundance Film Festival has exhibited Virtual Reality films and art installations as part of their New Frontier initiative. Like with the introduction of film and the Cinema over 100 years ago, creative visionaries are exploring ways to develop their art alongside an emerging technology.

The non-technical press increasingly confuses Virtual Reality (think Tron) with Augmented Reality (think Minority Report). Virtual Reality immerses a user with a digitally rendered, three dimensional world while wearing a head-mounted display (HMD). Augmented Reality, (AR) superimposes a digital rendering over the world visible in front of us – and at its most basic, just uses the screen of a smartphone. AR has already found many applications in productivity and collaborative design, and makes use of similar technologies, however, VR will likely have an overall greater impact on the world of gaming and entertainment in the near future.

Virtual Reality has bifurcated into two adjacent entertainment technologies: mobile VR and PC-based tethered VR. Mobile VR relies on smartphones (mainly Android) to do the heavy computation, and can’t match the responsiveness and graphical detail of a powerful gaming PC or gaming console, such as the PS4 or Xbox.

The cheapest, and therefore, most accessible, mobile VR option is Google Cardboard, which is, quite literally, a piece of cardboard with embedded lenses that folds into a box you can use to cover your eyes and create a VR headset. Although the graphics are only as good as the smartphone you’re using, Google Cardboard is completely wireless (mobile), so it can be used just about anywhere, and its minimalist design and minimal cost make it very accessible. In 2016, Google unveiled Google Daydream, a more high-end VR headset that is currently only compatible with a small selection of smartphones. However, the top mobile VR headset is the Samsung Gear VR, which already boasts a relatively large library of apps and games, such as Minecraft. The primary applications for mobile VR are currently non-interactive virtual “showrooming” and social, shared-viewing experiences.

PC-based VR not only has sensors for head-tracking, but (crucially), absolute position detection for hand tracking, which allows users to pick up and manipulate objects in the virtual world, thus enabling more interactive applications and a more immersive experience. Ultimately, “Room-Scale” VR allows us to freely wander around a rendered universe (“freely” meaning the way a Jules Verne era diver might wander around with tubes sticking out of his head). The industry leader in room scale VR is the SteamVR-powered HTC Vive system, but it was Oculus Rift that started the buzz when it was bought by Facebook in 2014 for $2B. Content for Oculus has been slow coming, and the company is rapidly losing ground and influence in the industry to the HTC Vive system, and to the lower-cost, but less ambitious Sony Playstation VR.

The HTC Vive gives users the most complete VR experience currently on the market. Although you are tethered to a gaming PC, the Vive lets you walk around (after you clear your living room furniture, of course), as well as reach out and grab objects in the virtual reality space using controllers. The HTC Vive controllers can become a paintbrush, cartoon hands, and most usually, guns. Until recently, Oculus Rift was using Xbox controllers to navigate through their system but the company has started shipping the much anticipated Oculus Touch to close the gap between them and the HTC Vive experience.

But the most significant entrant is PlayStation VR, the new market leader with an estimated 800,000 units shipped last year. PlayStation VR is a more affordable alternative to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive because it works with the PlayStation 4 console, as opposed to a costly gaming PC. Although, the Playstation 4 can’t create the same high-res experience as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, Sony has more control over both the hardware (Playstation VR) and the software (Sony Interactive Entertainment [SIE]), which gives them usability advantage over the other VR ecosystems.

Before Q1 of last year ended, 2016 was already being dubbed “The Year of Virtual Reality”, with roughly 2 million VR headsets shipped in 2016, and 5 million units projected to ship by the end of 2017 (Canalys). Despite this, the brand-new gaming and entertainment platform still didn’t meet  the immense expectations of many investors. In our reality, VR is undergoing impressively steady growth. Although with the technology in its infancy, and manufacturers hyping up their “first gen’s” potential to generate media attention and sales, Virtual Reality has got a long way to go before becoming a household item.

In next week’s blog post, I’ll share my thoughts on the commercial and technical problems facing VR technology.