PS4 is going gangbusters, 3DS continues to impress, Steam and Kickstarter have between them overseen an extraordinary revitalisation of PC gaming, and mobile gaming goes from strength to strength; yet it's absolutely clear where the eager eyes of most gamers are turned right now. Virtual reality headsets are, not for the first time, the single most exciting thing in interactive entertainment. At the Tokyo Game Show and its surrounding events, the strongest contrast to the huge number of mobile titles on display was the seemingly boundless enthusiasm for Sony's Morpheus and Oculus' Rift headsets; at Oculus' own conference in California the same week, developers were entranced by the hardware and its promise.
VR is coming; this time, it's for real. Decades of false starts, disappointments and dodgy Hollywood depictions will finally be left behind. The tech and the know-how have finally caught up with the dreams. Immersion and realism are almost within touching distance, a deep, involved experience that will fulfil the childhood wishes of just about every gamer and SF aficionado while also putting clear blue water between core games and more casual entertainment. The graphical fidelity of mobile devices may be rapidly catching up to consoles, but the sheer gulf between a VR experience and a mobile experience will be unmistakeable.
"right now it feels like Sony is going to launch a reasonably cost-effective VR headset while Oculus is still in the prototyping phase"
That's the promise, anyway. There's no question that it's a promise which feels closer to fulfilment than ever before. Even in the absence of a final consumer product or even a release date, let alone a killer app, the prototypes and demos we've seen thus far are closer to "true" virtual reality than many of us had dared to hope. Some concerns remain; how mainstream can a product that relies on strapping on a headset to the exclusion of the real world actually become? (I wouldn't care to guess on this front, but would note that we already use technology in countless ways that would have seemed alien, anti-social or downright weird to people only a generation ago.) Won't an appreciable portion of people get motion sickness? (Perhaps; only widespread adoption will show us how widespread this problem really is.) There's plenty to ponder even as the technology marches inexorably closer.
One thing I found myself pondering around TGS and Oculus Connect was the slightly worrying divergence in the strategies of Sony and Oculus. A year or even six months ago, it felt like these companies, although rivals, were broadly marching in lock step. Morpheus and Rift felt like very similar devices - Rift was more "hobbyist" yet a little more technically impressive, while Morpheus was more clearly the product of an experienced consumer products company, but in essence they shared much of the same DNA.
Now, however, there's a clear divergence in strategy, and it's something of a concern. Shuhei Yoshida says that Morpheus is 85% complete (although anyone who has worked in product development knows that the last 10% can take a hell of a lot more than 10% of the effort to get right); Sony is seemingly feeling reasonably confident about its device and has worked out various cunning approaches to make it cost effective, from using mobile phone components through to repurposing PlayStation Move as a surprisingly effective VR control mechanism.
By contrast, Oculus Connect showed off a new prototype of Rift which is still clearly in a process of evolution. The new hardware is lighter and more comfortable - closer to being a final product, in short - but it's also still adding new features and functionality to the basic unit. Oculus, unlike Sony, still doesn't feel like a company that's anywhere close to having a consumer product ready to launch. It's still hunting for the "right" level of hardware capabilities and functionality to make VR really work.
I could be wrong; Oculus could be within a year of shipping something to consumers, but if so, they've got a damned funny way of showing it. Based on the tone of Oculus Connect, the firm's hugely impressive technology is still in a process of evolution and development. It barely feels any closer to being a consumer product this year than it did last year, and its increasingly complex functionality implies a product which, when it finally arrives, will command a premium price point. This is still a tech company in a process of iteration, discovering the product they actually want to launch; for Luckey, Carmack and the rest of the dream team assembled at Oculus, their VR just isn't good enough yet, even though it's moving in the right direction fast.
Sony, by contrast, now feels like it's about to try something disruptive. It's seemingly pretty happy with where Morpheus stands as a VR device; now the challenge is getting the design and software right, and pushing the price down to a consumer friendly level by doing market-disruptive things like repurposing components from its (actually pretty impressive) smartphones. Again, it's possible that the mood music from both companies is misleading, but right now it feels like Sony is going to launch a reasonably cost-effective VR headset while Oculus is still in the prototyping phase.
"When these headsets reach the market, what will be most important isn't who is first; it isn't even who is cheapest. The consumer's first experience must be excellent - nothing less will do"
These are two very different strategic approaches to the market. The worrying thing is that they can't both be right. If Oculus is correct and VR still needs a lot of fine-tuning, prototyping and figuring out before it's ready for the market, then Sony is rushing in too quickly and risks seriously damaging the market potential of VR as a whole with an underwhelming product. This risk can't be overstated; if Morpheus launches first and it makes everyone seasick, or is uncomfortable to use for more than a short period of time, or simply doesn't impress people with its fidelity and immersion, then it could see VR being written off for another decade in spite of Oculus' best efforts. The public are fickle and VR has cried wolf too many times already.
If, on the other hand, Sony is correct and "good enough" VR tech is pretty much ready to go, then that's great for VR and for PS4, but potentially very worrying for Oculus, who risk their careful, evolutionary, prototype after prototype approach being upended by an unusually nimble and disruptive challenge from Sony. If this is the case (and I've heard little but good things about Morpheus, which suggests Sony's gamble may indeed pay off) then the Facebook deal could be either a blessing or a curse. A blessing, if it allows Oculus to continue to work on evolving and developing VR tech, shielding them from the impact of losing first-mover advantage to Sony; a curse, if that failure to score a clear win in the first round spooks Facebook's management and investors and causes them to pull the plug. That's one that could go either way; given the quality of the innovative work Oculus is doing, even if Sony's approach proves victorious, everyone should hope that the Oculus team gets an opportunity to keep plugging away.
It's exciting and interesting to see Sony taking this kind of risk. These gambles don't always pay off, of course - the company placed bets on 3D TV in the PS3 era which never came to fruition, for example - but that's the nature of innovation and we should never criticise a company for attempting something truly interesting, innovative and even disruptive, as long as it passes the most basic of Devil's Advocate tests. Sony has desperately needed a Devil's Advocate in the past - Rolly, anyone? UMD? - but Morpheus is a clear pass, an interesting and exciting product with the potential to truly turn around the company's fortunes.
I just hope that in the company's enthusiasm, it understands the absolute importance of getting this right, not just being first. This is a quality Sony was famed for in the past; rather than trying to be first to market in new sectors, it would ensure that it had by far the best product when it launched. This is one of the things which Steve Jobs, a huge fan of Sony, copied from the company when he created the philosophies which still guide Apple (a company that rarely innovates first, but almost always leapfrogs the competition in quality and usability when it does adopt new technology and features). For an experience as intimate as VR - complete immersion in a headset, screens mere centimetres from your eyes - that's a philosophy which must be followed. When these headsets reach the market, what will be most important isn't who is first; it isn't even who is cheapest. The consumer's first experience must be excellent - nothing less will do. Oculus seems to get that. Sony, in its enthusiasm to disrupt, must not lose sight of the same goal.