As the end of 2015 rapidly approaches (seriously, how on earth is it October already?), the picture of what we can expect from VR in 2016 is starting to look a little less fuzzy around the edges. There's no question that next year is the Year of VR, at least in terms of mindshare. Right now it looks like no fewer than three consumer VR systems will be on the market during calendar 2016 - Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Valve / HTC Vive. They join Samsung's already released Gear VR headset, although that device has hardly set the world on fire; it's underwhelming at best and in truth, VR enthusiasts are all really waiting for one of the big three that will arrive next year.
Those fuzzy edges, though; they're a concern, and as they come into sharper focus we're starting to finally understand what the first year of VR is going to look like. In the past week or so, we've learned more about pricing for the devices - and for Microsoft's approach, the similar but intriguingly different Hololens - and the aspect that's brought into focus is simple; VR is going to be expensive. It's going to be expensive enough to be very strictly limited to early adopters with a ton of disposable income. It's quite likely going to be expensive enough that the market for software is going to struggle for the first couple of years at least, and that's a worry.
Oculus Rift, we've learned, will cost "at least" $350. That's just for the headset; you'll also need a spectacularly powerful PC to play games in VR. No laptop will suffice, and you're certainly out of luck with a Mac; even for many enthusiasts, the prospect of adding a major PC purchase or upgrade to a $350 headset is a hefty outlay for an early glimpse of the future. It's likely (though as yet entirely unconfirmed) that Valve's Vive headset will have a similar price tag and a similarly demanding minimum PC specification. The cheap end of the bunch is likely to be PlayStation VR - not because the headset will be cheap (Sony has confirmed that it is pricing it as a "platform" rather than a peripheral, suggesting a $300 or so price tag) but because the system you attach it to is a $350 PS4 rather than a much more expensive PC.
"More than almost any other type of device, I think VR is going to need a pretty big public campaign to convince people to try it out and accept the concept"
It is unreasonable, of course, to suggest that this means that people will be expected to pay upwards of $600 for Sony's solution, or $1500 for the PC based solution. A great many people already own PS4s; quite a few own PCs capable of playing VR titles. For these people, the headset alone (and perhaps some software) is the cost of entry. That is still a pretty steep cost - enough to dissuade people with casual interest, certainly - but it's tolerable for early adopters. The large installed base of PS4s, in particular, makes Sony's offering interesting and could result in a market for PlayStation VR ramping up significantly faster than pessimistic forecasts suggest. On the PC side, things are a little more worrying - there's the prospect of a standards war between Valve and Oculus, which won't be good for consumers, and a question mark over how many enthusiasts actually own a PC powerful enough to run a VR headset reliably, though of course, the cost of PCs that can run VR will fall between now and the 2016 launch.
All the same, the crux of the matter remains that VR is going to be expensive enough - even the headsets alone - to make it into an early-adopter only market during its first year or so. It's not just the cost, of course; the very nature of VR is going to make it into a slightly tough sell for anyone who isn't a devoted enthusiast, and more than almost any other type of device, I think VR is going to need a pretty big public campaign to convince people to try it out and accept the concept. It's one thing to wax lyrical about holodecks and sci-fi dreams; it's quite another to actually get people to buy into the notion of donning a bulky headset that blocks you off from the world around you in the most anti-social way imaginable. If you're reading a site like GamesIndustry.biz, you almost certainly get that concept innately; you may also be underestimating just how unattractive and even creepy it will seem to a large swathe of the population, and even to some of the gamer and enthusiast market VR hopes (needs!) to capture.
The multi, multi million dollar question remains, as it has been for some time - what about software? Again, Sony has something of an advantage in this area as it possesses very well regarded internal studios, superb developer relations and deep pockets; combined with its price and market penetration advantages, these ought to more than compensate for the difference in power between the PS4 and the PCs being used to power Rift and Vive, assuming (and it's a big assumption) that the PS4's solution actually works reliably and consistently with real games despite its lack of horsepower. The PC firms, on the other hand, need to rely on the excitement, goodwill and belief of developers and publishers to provide great games for VR in its early days. A handful of teams have devoted themselves to VR already and will no doubt do great things, but it's a matter of some concern that a lot of industry people you talk to about PC VR today are still talking in terms of converting their existing titles to simply work in 3D VR; that will look cool, no doubt, but a conversion lacking the attention to controls, movement and interaction that's required to make a VR world work will cause issues like motion sickness and straight-up disappointment to rear their ugly heads.
If VR is going to be priced as a system, not just a toy or a peripheral, then it needs to have software that people really, really want. Thus far, what we've seen are demos or half-hearted updates of old games. Even as we get close enough to consumer launches for real talk about pricing to begin, VR is still being sold off the back of science fiction dreams and long-held technological longings, not real games, real experiences, real-life usability. That desperately needs to change in the coming months.
"Getting the equipment into the hands of consumers at Tokyo Games Show or EGX is a start, but only a first step"
At least Hololens, which this week revealed an eye-watering $3000 developer kit to ship early next year, has something of a roadmap in this regard; the device will no doubt be backed up by Microsoft's own studios (an advantage it shares, perhaps to a lesser degree, with Sony) but more importantly, it's a device not aimed solely at games, one which will in theory be able to build up a head of steam from sales to enterprise and research customers prior to making a splash in consumer markets with a more mature, less expensive proposition. I can't help wondering why VR isn't going down this road; why the headlong rush to get a consumer device on the market isn't being tempered at least a little by a drive to use the obvious enterprise potential of VR to get the devices out into the wild, mature, established and affordable before pushing them towards consumers. I totally understand the enthusiasm that drives this; I just don't entirely buy the business case.
At the very least, one would hope that if 2016 is the year of VR, it's also the year in which we start to actually see VR in real-life applications beyond the gaming dens of monied enthusiasts. It's a technology that's perfectly suited to out-of-home situations; the architect who wants to give clients a walkthrough of a new building design; the museum that wants to show how a city looked in the past; the gaming arcade or entertainment venue that wants to give people an experience that most of them simply can't have at home on their consoles. VR is something that a great many consumers will want to have access to given the right software, the right price point and crucially, the right experience and understanding of its potential. Getting the equipment into the hands of consumers at Tokyo Games Show or EGX is a start, but only a first step. If VR's going to be a big part of the industry's future, then come next year, VR needs to be everywhere; it needs to be unavoidable. It can't keep running on dreams; virtual reality needs to take a step into reality.