This is the state of VR in 2016: large hardware developers will be asking consumers to spend between $400 and $800 for headsets that are barely a step removed from the prototype phase. And early adopters will pay the price of admission because they are believers in the potential of VR as much as the actual technology.
This is not unusual for new technology. Smartphones, media formats, and videogame consoles have all had phases where early adopters have been willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for awkward, unfinished technology. But what's different this time is the breathless hype. There are investors, developers, and industry insiders calling VR the biggest technological leap since the smartphone. Technology research firm SuperData is predicting $3.6 billion in revenue from VR for 2016 alone.
And yet, I can't think of many instances where I've encountered a technology as divisive as VR. No one ever doubted that smartphones would "make it," mostly because the benefits of being able to go online anywhere were obvious. With VR, you have media personalities like Bill Maher saying, Can we stop trying to make [virtual reality] a thing?"
The benefits of VR remain nebulous and hard to grasp, and even its biggest boosters admit that the tech has a long way to go before it reaches anything resembling its full potential. But that hasn't stopped VR from being the biggest tech story in 2016; and with the Rift and HTC Vive now on the market, the hype train isn't likely to slow down anytime soon.
For now, gaming is the biggest driver of VR, and will continue to be for the near future. But even among gamers - the most enthusiastic of early adopters in most cases - the potential of VR gaming has been a point of heated debate; and not just among fans, but developers as well. Here's where it stands.
I first put on a VR headset in 2014, shortly after Sony announced what would become the PlayStation VR. I wrote at the time, "While I didn't truly feel what I would call 'fear' — I was very much aware that I was in a simulation — I felt a level of immersion that I've never experienced in a game before. Until now, the distance between myself and the screen has always created a natural sense of removal from the action. With [PlayStation VR], that sense of removal is mostly gone. I knew it wasn't real, but the lizard portion of my brain was still screaming, "That’s a shark!" It was definitely a unique experience."
For a lot of early adopters, that first experience is enough to make them true believers. It's intense enough that they become convinced that we're on a verge of an entirely new interactive paradigm. Tom Sanocki is typical of a VR convert within the industry. Sanocki's career has taken him from an 11-year career at Pixar, through a stint at Bungie working on Destiny, and into a new position as founder and CEO of Limitless - one of the many startups that have sprung up around VR.
I met Sanocki at GDC, where he was demoing an animated VR short called Gary the Gull - a brief demo in which you interact with hyperactive seagull by shaking and nodding your head. When I asked him what possibilities VR hold, he half-jokingly responded, "Well, it's clearly going to take over the world."
I say "half-jokingly" because this is a pretty common refrain for VR enthusiasts: virtual reality and augmented reality are inevitable, they say. It's only a matter of time before the technology matures enough that it's adopted by mass audiences.
"Once you have people together, you're going to find all kinds of great things to do, and just experiencing great entertainment where you're in the middle of the action. Yeah, that’s what we’ve always wanted," he told me excitedly. "It's why kids play cops and robbers and kids play house. You want to be in the middle of that. Watching it is great, but being part of it really feels special."
Like many VR evangelists, Sanocki loves to compare the tech to the last technological revolution - smartphones. "Yeah, [VR] is like a brick cell phone, it’s a little awkward, but you know, there’s a lot of magic to it, and I can experience that magic. And it’s a little weird the first time, but I’ll get used to it, and it will take just a little while for that to get better or we get used to it, because we get used to a lot of things if it’s worthwhile. We forget that driving a car is actually a pretty foreign thing. A steering wheel and the clutch and all that, it’s not really that interesting, it’s not a great UI, it’s not a great experience, but, the magic of getting from point A to point B by yourself, I’ll deal with that. I’ll take driving lessons, I’ll put all this effort into it, I'll risk the chance of getting hit because of that magic. We'll see what the future holds, but we’re off to a really great start, because I don’t know of any other technology that has had such great momentum in its first year, before it launches to consumers, and has had support from so many major companies, both from the content end and the hardware end."
$799, April 5
Developed in partnership with HTC, the Vive is Valve's entry in the VR race. The Vive supports many of the same games as the Oculus Rift, but its "Lighthouse" tracker differs from the Rift in that it's a light-based system that allows you to physically move around a room. The Vive is the most expensive of the VR headsets, but it benefits from including motion controllers in the package, unlike the Rift.
Not surprisingly, gamers are among the most fervent VR boosters. A few years back, when I was working on a story about a fan remake of Trespasser - the bizarre but ambitious videogame spinoff of Jurassic Park - its creator talked about how he was building it around VR. At the time, it sounded kind of insane to build it around such high-end tech; now it feels forward-thinking. In press circles, Polygon's Ben Kuchera is a well-known VR evangelist.
On the face of it, VR fulfills the desire to actually climb into a game and be a part of a fantasy world. Where we once built outsized simulators and shot bad guys with plastic guns, we can now don a headset and become totally immersed. The power of being able to turn your head and track ships as they fly past, or lean into a turn when driving, or actually wield a lightsaber is undeniable.
VR's natural gaming applications has dominated most of the narrative so far. Both the Occulus Rift and the HTC Vive are being treated as new gaming consoles by the media, and Sony has deliberately attached their VR headset to the PlayStation. But with so many possibilities, it's hard to say what form VR gaming will actually take.
"Games are the trojan horse of VR," a developer casually told me the other day when I asked him for his thoughts on the Vive and the Rift. He's as excited as anyone about VR - he thinks that they'll "have a mucher greater impact on society than smartphones ever did" - but his thoughts on games are illuminating. And indeed, VR games still have a lot of hurdles to overcome.
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