For an industry accustomed to straightforward platform launches like game consoles, which have relatively simple metrics for success or failure, the arrival of consumer VR has been a little tricky to process in some regards.
VR isn't just a platform; it's a collection of platforms orbiting around a core concept that is, itself, still very much in flux. Figuring out whether it's 'succeeding' or not really depends on how you define and measure success, on which sets of figures you choose to believe, and on where you think the market is headed overall - none of which are questions with widely accepted answers right now.
One certain winner that has emerged over the past year has been Sony, whose PSVR headset has benefitted immensely from a combination of relatively low pricing, accessibility (via the huge PS4 installed base) and great hardware design (it's arguably the most comfortable of the headsets on the market right now, and performs minor technical miracles despite its comparatively low specs). As a result, it's the clear leader in the high-end VR headset space; PSVR's installed base is streets ahead of that of rivals such as HTC or Oculus.
"There's almost certainly a bright future for VR in location based gaming - perhaps brighter, even, than the one that exists for home VR solutions"
A report in this week's Wall Street Journal, however, implies that Sony isn't internally happy with the performance of PSVR, and is looking for new outlets for the technology - specifically, pushing it towards location-based entertainment (arcades and their ilk) in Japan. That the company with the most successful platform seemingly feels this way about it is a pretty good indicator of just how ill-defined notions of success in VR are right now, and it's also a slightly odd statement given that PSVR has been back-ordered at retail in many regions for most of its life-span to date.
All the same, it's unsurprising that Sony would seek other outlets for its VR technology. The reality is that nobody's quite sure what VR is actually going to be used for; we know that the technology is now affordable and effective, but the huge looming question of what consumers are actually going to want to do with it is still unanswered.
Considering that, Sony - and other VR firms - really ought to be pushing the technology in every direction they can. The core notion of VR right now is that people are going to sit (or stand) at home playing games with the headsets, but while that seems logical enough, it's actually largely unproven. We don't yet know how a wider consumer audience will react to the idea of strapping on a headset for a solo gaming experience in the home; given the (quite deliberate) isolating effect of VR and the need for complex setups for more advanced VR devices, it may well be something that never finds a major home audience. Questions also remain over the willingness of players to engage with lengthy VR games, rather than short experiences.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other worlds of opportunity to explore. VR has potential applications in a host of areas beyond games, from architecture and tourism to scientific research and even to some promising therapeutic applications. Such uses for VR technology are an important area to explore, not just as potential side-shows to the gaming "main event", but also because it could well turn out that this technology - to some extent still an answer begging a question - only becomes a true commercial hit once it is matched against an unexpected field of usage.
"For consumer entertainment, there's a strong possibility that VR will primarily be something you go and do socially"
Within that, out-of-home or location-based entertainment is definitely a fascinating field. Where putting on a VR headset at home may be unappealing, and setting up the kit for room-scale VR may simply be impossible for a majority of consumers, the idea of being able to go to a location and enjoy a VR experience is potentially very powerful.
For consumer entertainment, there's a strong possibility that VR will primarily be something you go and do socially, rather than something you buy and engage with alone in your home. (I'm reminded of the fact that Star Trek's holodecks, a constant touchstone of inspiration for many involved with VR, were something characters went to in the company of friends and colleagues, not something they plugged into in their own quarters; of course, this was as much for dramatic reasons as anything else, but the scriptwriters may also have been on to something regarding the context in which most people are willing to accept that kind of virtual experience.)
For Sony, however, a focus in this area may be a misstep - at least with the hardware they're presently using for VR. Sony's enormous advantage in VR right now is the ubiquity of the PS4 and the low cost of its headset; that lies in the balance against the fact that PSVR is a lower spec and less flexible VR solution compared to those being offered by its more expensive competitors. In the consumer market, that's a no-brainer; the number of people interested in trying a relatively cheap plug-and-play VR system for a console they already own vastly outstrips the number willing to buy a very expensive, complex VR system for a PC they'll likely have to upgrade in preparation.
In location-based gaming, however, the equation no longer balances quite so clearly in Sony's favour. A location-based game operator has quite different motivations in their choice of hardware to a VR-curious consumer. For a location based game, a few hundred dollars extra for a notably higher quality of experience is easily justified; after all, setting up the rest of the location is probably costing many thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars, so skimping on something as core as the VR headset itself would be bizarre. Moreover, extra functionality like room-scale VR or precise controllers will often simply be non-negotiable, depending on the kind of experience being created.
"It's unlikely that any VR solution using a PS4 will ever be as flexible, in software rollout terms, as a straightforward PC"
On top of that, while the ubiquity of the PS4 has been a major asset to PSVR as a consumer device, its nature as a closed console platform will be anathema to many location-based game operators. Such operators often develop their own software, in-house or through a third-party contractor; having to jump through Sony's hoops to get software onto PSVR makes sense for consumer games, but not for a location-based game operator who only plans to roll out the software to a handful of locations at most. Sony could, in theory, create a channel for such companies that bypasses the red tape, but it's unlikely that any VR solution using a PS4 will ever be quite as flexible, in software rollout terms, as a straightforward PC.
It's important not to discount the Sony factor in all of this; it's a big, well-respected company that a lot of operators may be happy to work with, especially given that as a hardware manufacturer its devices are both robust, and backed up effectively with warranties and repair systems (important given the wear and tear a location-based game VR headset will be subjected to).
However, for a lot of companies in this field, Sony's offering simply won't appeal in its current form - especially given the risk of ending up stuck on a platform that's rapidly getting more and more outdated, while rivals who ran with PC-based solutions are able to continue upgrading to the latest and greatest devices without seriously overhauling their systems and software.
There's almost certainly a bright future for VR in location based gaming - perhaps brighter, even, than the one that exists for home VR solutions. For Sony, however, it'll take more than just industry outreach and good intentions to capture a major slice of that market. In PSVR, it has created the ideal device for contemporary home VR; affordable enough to appeal to consumers, well designed and technologically capable of remaining in the same ballpark as much more expensive rivals.
Many of the trade-offs made in the process, however, are the opposite of those that location-based gaming requires. While, knowing Sony's scale, it would be wrong to describe its location-based outreach as a distraction from the real task at hand; the point remains that PSVR's success or failure is going to come from its appeal as a consumer device, and what's important to it right now is not selling to new markets, but getting the software on-board to convince as-yet uncertain consumers to try VR.