In the past few years, the consumer VR market – which is in itself something of a niche within a niche – has divided into three distinct strands.
There are tethered PC headsets, essentially continuing the legacy that goes back to the earliest devices of the current VR wave; there are standalone headsets like Meta's Quest, which trade off graphical performance for wireless simplicity in a way that has proved pretty popular with consumers; and then there is PlayStation VR.
Sony's VR headset is a category all of its own, occupying unique territory within the market – which doesn't necessarily make Sony a winner in this contest, but certainly makes it very interesting.
The unique position of PSVR was reinforced this week by the flood of articles gushing about Sony's new headset, PSVR 2, which people were finally able to go hands-on with a few days ago. We don't have pricing or availability details for the new device yet – it's expected to launch in the first half of 2023, at least, but we're waiting for the other shoe to drop on pricing – but the level of interest in it, both from the media and from consumers more broadly, is incredibly high.
That's certainly justified to some extent by the hardware itself, which is by all accounts fantastic (which is hardly surprising, since the original PSVR headset was an unsubtle reminder that while innovation can come from anywhere, there's only one company in the VR space that's been making great consumer hardware for decades), but it also speaks volumes about the unusual market position of the PSVR platform.
Sony often feels like a bit of an outsider in the VR market. It follows a path very different to its rivals
Because it's in a category of its own, separated from both the PC tethered and standalone headsets, Sony often feels like a bit of an outsider in the VR market. It follows a path very different to its rivals; the software library for PSVR is very different to the library for other headsets, both for better and for worse. The closed nature of the platform is fairly unique within this market, and the pace of updates is a far cry from the breakneck innovation other market players pursue. For all this, Sony remains a pretty serious contender for being the first company to launch a VR product that actually wins a mainstream audience – a possibility that exists as much because of, rather than in spite of, the things it does which fly in the face of broader VR industry trends.
The first and most simple difference is arguably the most obvious – Sony doesn't launch very many VR headsets. PSVR 2 will only be its second VR hardware launch since it entered this market in 2016, meaning that the original PSVR had a pretty healthy six-year lifespan, comparable to the normal lifespan for a consumer device like a console.
Since Sony is a console platform holder, that does seem incredibly obvious, but in the context of the VR space more generally it's quite remarkable. Sony's VR competitors launch new headsets on a very rapid cycle, and a six-year lifespan before the introduction of a successor is unheard of. The pace of new launches has slowed down to some extent in recent years, but standalone headsets and PC tethered headsets are still generally updated by their manufacturer every couple of years, and there's a new 'latest and greatest' headset from one firm or another every year. These aren't little incremental updates either; new headsets often present pretty significant leaps forward due to the rapid pace of technology innovation in this sector.
That's a good thing from a standpoint of progress – it's amazing to compare the quality and functionality of today's headsets to those you could buy (very expensively) five years ago - but it's problematic from the standpoint of actually selling things to consumers. Enthusiasts bemoan a slow pace of innovation, but to reach a wider consumer audience, some degree of stability is required, either by slowing the pace of new product releases or by making the updates themselves more minor and incremental. Mass market consumers are worried of buying expensive devices that become obsolete too quickly, and constant talk about huge innovations on the horizon makes them wary, not excited; why buy a device today if these huge innovations will change everything so soon? Why pay hundreds of dollars today for a VR headset when there'll be a cheaper and better one on the market tomorrow?
You can look back around ten years to see the inflection point where something similar happened with smartphones: around the same time that enthusiasts started complaining that smartphone launches had become predictable and boring as the pace of innovation slowed, the actual global sales of smartphones skyrocketed as the kind of consumers who wants a device that'll last them for many years, not just until next year's Apple or Samsung keynote, finally hopped on board.
VR platforms definitely have a game name recognition problem once you get past Beat Saber and… well, Beat Saber is pretty much it
Sony's position at the moment is uniquely privileged in the sense that it enjoys the best of both worlds to some extent. The breakneck pace of innovation in VR headsets continues off to one side, but it's outside the PlayStation ecosystem – and every five or six years, Sony can gather up the best of those technology advances and launch a new cutting-edge headset with the tacit promise that if you buy this, it'll be supported for half a decade at least before being superseded.
Consumers feel more relaxed buying into that ecosystem – and moreover, as this week's very positive coverage of the PSVR 2 hardware shows, the comparisons end up being made between the previous model (now six years out of date) and the shiny new device, and are thus much more flattering than the comparisons made between incremental upgrades to other headset devices. Consequently, Sony's device gets to feel like a major generational leap, even though the upgrades to other categories of VR headset in the same timescale have been similarly huge.
There are caveats, of course – some of which are truly major question marks over the whole platform, like the fact that Sony's long-term support for PSVR 1 slowed to a trickle after a few years. It's one thing for a platform not to be superseded for many years, but that's far less meaningful if it's not getting much new software by the end of that lifespan.
There's also a troubling question mark over backwards compatibility for PSVR 1 games – which is a pretty decent library at this point, despite the slow-down in recent years – and the PSVR 2 hardware, which seems to be a tricky issue requiring developer intervention due to the change in how the new headset tracks motion. The technical difficulties are understandable, but if PSVR 1 software libraries become obsolete with the launch of the new headset, it'll leave a bad taste in the mouths of existing owners – and seriously undermine the value proposition of the new headset, which ought by rights to be launching with an impressive back-catalogue of games available on day one by default. These kinds of issue will weigh on consumer thinking about the new hardware and draw into question just how “stable” this device will be as a VR platform.
Nonetheless, Sony's offering to the general consumer remains much more appealing than most other VR devices can manage; it's a stable, well-supported platform, backed by one of the best-known and most trusted brands in gaming, and while it's not quite as simple as the standalone headsets, a single USB-C cable connection to a PS5 is about as simple as a tethered headset will ever get.
Sony's device gets to feel like a major generational leap, even though the upgrades to other VR headsets in the same timescale have been similarly huge
That appeal, of course, is massively boosted by Sony's ability to bring major game franchises to the platform. For many VR enthusiasts, the ability to run various modded games on PC tethered hardware has become a major part of the appeal, and the closed nature of Sony's platform is a significant downside – PSVR will never win over this part of the market. In terms of more mainstream consumers, the ability to market a headset as being the place you can play Horizon and Resident Evil in VR is a very big deal, and a growing library of VR games based on Sony's major franchises will be a huge selling point.
This is especially important given that existing VR platforms definitely have a game name recognition problem once you get past Beat Saber and… well, Beat Saber is pretty much it, as other VR software franchises have generally failed to register with the general consciousness, despite there being some other excellent games out there.
The initial PSVR was a moderate success by console standards, and a huge success by VR standards; the opportunity is definitely there for Sony to take that success, along with the goodwill it earned by sticking by that platform for a pretty decent lifespan, and leverage it into something much bigger this time.
By all accounts, it's got the hardware to do something much more impressive this time; the software and market positioning remain major challenges (let's just hope that pricing information doesn't make too heavy a thud when the other shoe finally drops), but the potential for a VR headset to finally crack into a mainstream market segment seems closer than ever.