There’s been so much news regarding Virtual Reality over the past couple of weeks, it’s hard to focus on one single thought. Amidst rebrandings, consumer launch plans and big software deals, it’s tricky not to feel anything other than unbridled excitement. Take a step back from the hype though, and it’s clear that VR has a climb ahead. Still, if there’s one main takeaway from all the commotion, it’s that Virtual Reality is ready to make an impression.
It was all eyes on Oculus this past week as the VR specialist put on its second Connect event, using the platform to lay out much of the company’s plans for the next six to eight months. To the surprise of many, it was the Gear VR, Oculus’ joint project with Samsung, that took most of the headlines. With the device launching in November, at an attractive price point of $99, it’s shaping up to be an excellent first foray into consumer VR. The addition of well-established partners like Netflix, Twitch and even Pac-Man will certainly help guide people towards the Gear VR, although a lack of understanding from the everyday consumer will undoubtedly cause some initial friction.
The Samsung exclusivity may also cause some minor problems. The Gear VR only working with flagship Samsung phones is a sensible option for the tech giant, but it will limit the success of the device. That’s not to say it won’t sell well - far from it. For those with even a passing interest in VR, the Gear VR is a fantastic option. It’s relatively cheap, and punches well above its weight in terms of picture and performance quality. Of course, it also has the advantage of being highly mobile. There’s great potential for the Gear VR to make a big impact in pop culture, as its conceptual simplicity makes it a great showpiece for virtual reality. If nothing else, it’ll be an ideal introduction to the higher-end products that will be arriving later.
To that point, the rest of Connect 2 was devoted to the Oculus Rift, and it’s now much easier to see the path Oculus’ centrepiece will take when it releases next year. The announcement that SDK 1.0 will be released in December is perhaps the most understated bit of information from the whole event. With an SDK that will allow developers to create software for the final retail version of the Rift, expect to see a lot more companies take an interest in VR development. In the past we’ve seen how Oculus’ incremental SDK release has frustrated developers (for instance with Elite: Dangerous developer Frontier Developments), so this should be a real point of interest for those looking to get started in VR.
Of course, games take a long time to create, so we won’t see the effects of increased developer support for another year or two. More immediate is the new info on the Rift “platform”, bringing the device more in line with current games consoles (or Steam) with features like achievements, a friends list and even an Early Access-akin programme titled Oculus Concepts. Given the early stages most VR games are still in, that final idea is a golden one. It means more content for early adopters, but also a way for creators to make a little money during development. This may make it a little trickier for Oculus to position the Rift as more than just a gaming device, although the revamped Oculus Video and partnership with numerous Hollywood studios will certainly help.
All of this, not to mention the announcement of Minecraft for Rift, gives the impression that Oculus is very much focused on the initially pitched Q1 2016 release. While Oculus is still keeping quiet on the specifics, it’s perhaps safe to say that the wheels are well and truly in motion by this point. It’s tough not to watch Luckey and Carmack on stage and not share their enthusiasm and optimism. The Oculus Rift is shaping up to be a fantastic bit of kit, but the challenge now is to get everyone else to think the same way.
Undoubtedly with a head-start on the public exposure front, Sony is looking like a fierce competitor for Oculus. The Project Morpheus rebrand, now known simply as PlayStation VR, is a rudimentary but possibly devastatingly effective move. By incorporating the world-renowned PlayStation name, Sony has attracted an audience that may have otherwise been unaware of Virtual Reality, while simultaneously positioning its VR device as a must-have accompaniment to its highly successful PS4. Given the 25 million consoles in homes around the globe, the PS4 may be a deal-breaker for PlayStation VR as the most successful of the high-end HMDs. It’s a point that’s been made plenty of times before, but as time goes by and more PS4s are sold, it only becomes more prominent.
The key for PSVR (we rather like that abbreviation) will be software. While the PC-based devices already have a fair amount of content available (especially the Rift), the closed nature of console development means pickings on Sony’s device will probably be a bit slimmer - although certainly more selective and curated. Hopefully Sony will have plenty of content to display at the upcoming Paris Games Week and beyond. The PS4, and associated software, has sold very well indeed, but PlayStation VR is comparatively unknown and will therefore need inspiring software from the off in order to succeed - no doubt Sony is capable of delivering though.
The wild card at the moment is Valve and the HTC Vive. We recently received our Vive here at Opposable, and have been blown away by the device ever since. It’s arguably the pinnacle (practical) VR experience right now, and as such is sure to garner a lot of interest. The whole “staggered launch” situation is proving difficult to fully understand, so hopefully Valve has a better understanding of launch plans than we do. Whatever does happen, due to its unique parentage of game-centric software developer and huge smartphone brand, it’s an amazing piece of kit that seems to spawn fans wherever it goes. As a device in and of itself, it’s perhaps the most exciting of the bunch, we’ll just have to wait to see how it will enter the consumer market.
Everything is to play for at this point. As time goes by it's becoming clearer that VR is going to make a huge impact, but which company will be delivering the pivotal blow remains to be seen. Here at Opposable, we've already seen and experienced how VR is changing a range of sectors, in particular the marketing industry, so there's strong potential for VR even outside of the consumer sphere. Still, it's through the wallets of early adopters and VR enthusiasts that Oculus, Sony and Valve/HTC will measure their success. It doesn't seem as though any of these companies are expecting their devices to be a huge instant success, and that's an intelligent viewpoint; VR is still a young technology with plenty of room to grow. The release of the Gear VR, Rift, PSVR and Vive won't be the big final chapter in a brief but triumphant tome, but rather the introduction to a brand new Virtual Reality novella.
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