Could 2016 be the make or break year for consumer VR?

Posted: 07.20.16

The promise of so many things this year

The subject of VR is getting more air time than the U.S. political can­didates, which in itself isn’t a bad thing.

Google is going to build a high-end VR HMD—no, wait a minute, they’re not. Steam is going to in­troduce a bunch of new VR games—hold on, are they? The Oculus Touch motion controller will be available in Q4 with the promise of a large selec­tion of compatible games— maybe. The HTC Vive may see an updated “HTC Vive 2.0” before the end of the year. Why? Is something wrong or missing with the 100,000 they sold of the current version?

Maybe I should restate this. Could 2016 be the make or break year for tethered PC-based VR? Mobile VR like Samsung’s Gear (and not counting card­board versions) is approaching 2 mil­lion units installed base (with Samsung getting over half of it). However, most of the apps for mobile VR are passive, 360-videos. Sony’s PS4 VR will be out in October, and by all accounts the company will sell over a million units. However, Microsoft seems to be dith­ering about its project Scorpio VR ma­chine, and Nintendo has taken a totally different track and gone into AR rather than VR. 

The motion to photon (MTP) la­tency still beleaguers interactive con­sumer VR, which requires smart content creation and an intimate understanding of the hardware. The XYZ game company won’t know for certain if the ABC HMD will be used with a QXY PC, so the risk is high that the experience will be compromised, probably by MTP. Sony and Starbreeze/Acer side-step that problem by offering an integrated sys­tem with purpose-built content, what we’re calling dedicated VR (DVR).

So the VR market breaks down into three major segments: mobile VR (most­ly passive), DVR, and PC VR. We think mobile VR and DVR will be successful. They will offer lots of content, be low cost, and be for the most part used for snacking VR. Some PS4 VR games may be compelling enough that people will want to stay in the HMD for an extended period of time (more than 10 minutes but less than 2 hours).

The problem is PCVR is still in the development stage, and the rush to market is going to have consequences. Functions and features such as eye-tracking, fova adjustment, 3D-sound, and haptic feedback (wind, temperature, shock and vibration, etc.) are still labo­ratory projects and need a lot of field testing. One of the things S3D taught us was how crazy different people’s eyes are—the separation, the focus, sensitivi­ty to strobing, colors, etc., etc. There are similar issues with today’s HMD, with regard to resolution and the screen-door effect, FOV and depth of view, and how immersed one can be without awareness of hands and feet. And not the least, or last, item is the physical comfort, weight of the HMD, ventilation, and the issue of claustrophobia. These are not “show-stoppers” per se, but they are speed bumps. And if the industry doesn’t im­plode like the PC and TV S3D market did (leaving only children’s animation and effects-heavy first-run movies), the speed bumps can be eliminated one by one.

In the meantime, the most complete, closed systems, such as Sony and Sam­sung, will be the choice of consumers. The mysterious darling of mixed reality Magic Leap is doing something similar, likening themselves to a mini Apple and building a complete system.

On the content side, it seems every developer who was thinking about cre­ating a mobile app is now in the VR business. Most (and soon I predict all) of the PC and console game develop­ers will announce they are VR develop­ers now. And studios that were making infomercials, and short shorts, are now declaring themselves to be VR provid­ers, predominately in the 360-viewer class.

One of the ironies about VR is, un­like the three blind men trying to fig­ure out what an elephant is, the pro­ponents and wannabe participants in VR all seem to know exactly what it is, and how gigundous it’s going to be. The best summary for it is what Roy Taylor of AMD said: “VR isn’t going to be a big thing, it’s going to be everything.” I think that’s probably right, as long as the hype and unfillable expectations of consumers down’t kill it before it really happens.