Virtual reality gears up for a reality check

Molly Wood Jan 7, 2016

Virtual reality gears up for a reality check

Molly Wood Jan 7, 2016

We’ve been promised great virtual reality technology for years now, but this is the year we’ll find out whether the market has legs. 

The Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive headsets will all be available in 2016. The Rift, probably the most long-awaited piece of tech in recent memory, became available for pre-orders Wednesday, and will ship in March. 

At CES in Las Vegas, VR rules. The number of gaming and virtual reality displays has almost doubled since last year, and VR demos dominate big chunks of the trade show’s convention hall. 

But the economics are still unknown. SuperData Research, a games and media analysis firm, tried to put some hard numbers around the potential size of the market this week. In a report released Tuesdayit said the VR video-game industry could be worth $5.1 billion in 2016, most of that spent on hardware, software and accessories. That’s compared to $660 million in 2015, when very little hardware, software and accessories were available. 

Molly Wood tries out the soon-to-finally-be-released Oculus Rift at CES 2016

But while everyone was waiting for Oculus to release the $599 Rift, mobile virtual reality was on the move. Those headset viewers powered by your smartphone, with content delivered through apps, have become the gateway to the technology for a lot of people.

It’s easy to be skeptical of virtual reality, since it involves wearing a big, clunky and often uncomfortable headset, some early users complained of motion sickness, and, well, there’s been nothing to really buy up until now. 

But as Google Cardboard and even the Samsung Gear VR slowly have crept into the mainstream, people have started to realize the potential. (The ones who didn’t get motion sick, anyway.)

Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, which makes the technology inside the Gear VR, said he considers it a trailblazer.  

“We’ve seen a pretty unprecedented number of sales of Gear VR for a first generation new product category,” he said. “People have never had VR on their faces before as a consumer product. There wasn’t a consumer market before, now there is with the Gear VR.” 

Now that these so-called mobile virtual reality platforms are becoming more popular, and are accessible in things like schools, museums and even “old-school” toys, the question will be whether what Iribe calls “PC VR” will find a place. 

The Oculus Rift isn’t an independent unit — it’s a gaming accessory that requires a very powerful PC to run its graphics-intensive content. In fact, graphics card maker Nvidia estimates only about 1 percent of PCs are even powerful enough to run virtual reality content. So Oculus will soon start selling bundles that include the Rift and an actual computer, starting at $1,499. 

“PC VR is most likely going to be a smaller category of enthusiasts and gamers than broad mobile VR,” Iribe said. “Mobile VR at $99 is a much more affordable price point for a much broader audience than PC VR at $599 or with a PC at $1499 — you’re going to see more adoption on the mobile side as we move forward.” 

But in the long run, he believes high-quality, immersive virtual reality will have uses beyond just gaming, even if Oculus stays focused on that for the near future. 

“You’re starting to see a lot more beyond just games coming to the Rift,” Iribe said. “You’re seeing things in architecture and simulation, medical, automotive, a lot of even creation and art and design is happening now.” 

And the potential of virtual reality as an interactive platform can’t be understated. At CES, I tried Oculus’ demo of an interactive toy room, where I was able to pick up and hand off objects, shoot laser guns, and actually play ping-pong with another person, who was also in the virtual reality space with me. That simple act of hanging out with another avatar could drive an entirely new mode of interactive over time. 

VR has been a future technology for a long time. And as a category it still poses more questions than answers. But the answers are coming. At last, the future has arrived. 

Click the media player above to hear Molly Wood in conversation with Kai Ryssdal.


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