Amidst all the various hype and noise that has surrounded virtual reality in the past ten years, Sony has always been an interesting player.
Its PSVR headset and ecosystem feels in some regards like a sidenote to the evolution of VR, not least because it didn't actually evolve; where other manufacturers iterated fairly rapidly on their hardware, assisted by the relentless pace of progress in PC specifications, PSVR was tethered to a fixed-spec console, and the hardware hasn't changed in the five years since it launched.
Moreover, PSVR largely had its own ecosystem of games that was separate from -- and notably smaller than -- the more overlapping game ecosystem for PC (and latterly mobile) VR systems. Consequently, it's relatively easy to dismiss PSVR as an interesting but ultimately inconsequential part of the VR story so far.
The reality is somewhat different. PSVR remains one of the most commercially successful VR headsets, likely leading the market right up until the success of the Oculus Quest 2 seized the crown. The last sales update we had for the headset suggested around five million units sold in 2019; it's unlikely that the installed base has grown very significantly since then, but those were very impressive numbers for a relatively high-end VR device at that point in time.
Most people are probably happy to see Sony continuing its commitment to console VR -- more competition is always good, and the last headset did push the market forward
There are a number of factors which helped the PSVR to achieve those sales continue to have an impact on the VR market today -- from the simplicity of setting up the device compared to PC VR systems of the time, to the quality and elegance of Sony's industrial design (arguably still a high watermark for VR headsets in some regards, with aspects often being imitated in more recent devices), to the company's early understanding that consistently high framerates would be far, far more important than resolution to delivering a workable VR experience.
Even so, it probably caused a few eyebrows to raise when Sony confirmed that it was working on a successor to the PSVR headset for the PlayStation 5. The success of PSVR may have looked great from the perspective of the VR market, but looking at it in the other direction, from the heights of Sony's console triumphs in the past generation, the headset sold to less than 1 in 20 PS4 owners -- a pretty small slice of the addressable market.
Peripherals which have reached a significantly larger market have been dropped like a rock in the past, simply because it's not really worth the effort to develop new software that's intrinsically limited in its potential market to a mere 5% or so of the console's installed base. Most people are probably happy to see Sony continuing its commitment to console VR -- more competition is always good, and the last headset did push the market forward in important ways (and in Resident Evil 7 VR, delivered what's still one of the most compelling VR software experiences to date) -- but it's a happiness tinged with a little confusion about why this is happening.
The answer to that question, I think, was revealed tacitly in Sony's Technology Day presentation earlier this week -- a fascinating but relatively low-profile look at some of the blue-sky work being done by the company's various technology divisions. During this presentation, Sony showed off a prototype 8K VR headset -- not a prototype of PSVR2, but rather a work-in-progress headset that it expects to have applications in everything from remote collaborative work to medical imaging to industrial manufacturing.
Entertainment applications were mentioned, but almost as a sidebar; this is a project aimed squarely at exploring the business applications of VR technology, both in terms of its potential in post-pandemic (can we please get to the point of being able to say "post-pandemic" without sighing wistfully every time?) remote working paradigms, and in a whole host of fields which could see enormous benefits from 3D visualisation of objects or processes.
The company's ambitions for VR go far beyond PlayStation -- even to the extent that it sees VR as potentially a new pillar for the company's businesses in many other fields as well
As such, the really interesting thing about the prototype headset shown off this week wasn't really the technology comprising the device -- it's an 8K headset using 4K OLED screens for each eye and a variety of clever optimisations to ensure low latency responses and high framerates, all of which sounds very good but not dramatically out of line with what other VR companies are teasing for their future devices -- but rather the intention behind it. Sony has, of course, dabbled in the VR space since the 1990s, but PSVR was its first major product launch in this area in decades -- the knowledge that it's apparently now working not only on a PSVR successor, but also on business VR technology for industrial and professional use, suddenly makes a whole lot of things make sense.
Sony's commitment to PSVR isn't just about a PlayStation peripheral and VR games; it's about a technology which the company sees as having potential across a much broader range of its businesses. The dominance of PlayStation among Sony's public-facing brands makes it easy to sometimes forget the extent of its business interests across fields like optical imaging, displays, digital storage and broadcast technology, all of them used in a host of commercial, industrial, and research contexts -- many of them potentially benefiting from the professional use of VR.
Take those business spheres and the potential of VR as a transformative technology into account, and Sony's continued focus on PSVR suddenly makes an enormous amount of business sense -- regardless of the actual number of units sold.
Sony believes, with pretty good justification, that virtual reality is going to play a major role in areas in which it has a significant business interest, such as medical imaging. It also knows, however, that getting VR up to the standard required to be used extensively in those kinds of business areas is something that's going to face a lot of challenges. For all the strides that have been made in recent years, VR technology is still relatively immature, and things like motion sickness or input lag that may be forgivable issues in a video game could be total dealbreakers for doctors, engineers or other professionals using the tech in the workplace.
This creates a major need to develop and iterate on the technology, and PSVR provides an extraordinary advantage to Sony over potential commercial rivals -- a testbed for new technology, covering everything from manufacturing and design through to software and human interface, whose initial version went into the hands of around five million consumers and thus provided the company with a wealth of experience, feedback and know-how in a realm where those are still very rare commodities.
Of course, this doesn't mean that Sony wouldn't like PSVR2 to be an even bigger commercial success -- that should go without saying. PSVR isn't just a stealthy way to use PlayStation users as beta-testers for professional VR systems; if anything, it's quite likely that PSVR will remain Sony's most commercially successful VR product for quite a few years to come.
However, the company's level of commitment to this technology, above and beyond its positioning as a USP for the PlayStation, makes much more sense when contextualised with the knowledge that the company's ambitions for VR go far beyond PlayStation -- even to the extent that it sees VR as potentially a new pillar for the company's businesses in many other fields as well.
That should give both developers and consumers a sense of confidence about the future of PSVR. Just as the future of Xbox at Microsoft was cemented (even in the face of the flop of Xbox One) by the division positioning itself as a major value-add to both the Windows and Azure businesses, PSVR's position at Sony is anchored by the company's desire to take the experience and know-how gained from building successful consumer VR headsets and apply it to making VR into a game-changer across many other areas of its business.