Reading the VR Tea Leaves of E3 2017

For developers seeking to get a sense of the state of the Virtual Reality market, consumer-focused events like last week’s E3 can help to provide a valuable gut-check. Reading those tea leaves was trickier this year than last, as 2017 is something of an in-between year for immersive tech. That said, E3 2017 did provide a feel for where some of the major players are committing their efforts, and what we can expect as their respective VR roadmaps start to gel.

(Note: For the purposes of this article, I will be using the term “VR” to include all of the related tech, including Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality.)

Microsoft Shrugs Off Console VR Gaming…For Now

All the muscle required for outstanding VR…but no VR support at this time.

Microsoft’s big reveal this year was XBox One X console. It’s a beefy console to be sure, with specs rivaling even those of Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro — easily capable of delivering high-quality VR, had they chosen to do so. As has been widely reported, and to the disappointment of many, Microsoft chose otherwise.

“Because of the opportunity with Windows Mixed Reality, and because we believe the user experience will be best on PC right now, that is where our focus is.” — Microsoft

This omission has been misinterpreted by many gamers as Redmond’s waning commitment to VR. In fact, most indicators point to just the opposite. On the whole Microsoft appears deeply committed to VR and AR (to which they refer collectively as Mixed Reality), but that signal was easy to miss at a gaming expo.

Immersive platforms will ultimately transform productivity and the workplace, and those seem to be be the areas on which Microsoft is focussing their fire, as they continue to aggressively expand their Windows Mixed Reality ecosystem to include Hololens, Microsoft Mixed Reality OS (née Windows Holographic), and of course the inexpensive-yet-powerful Windows 10 VR headsets.

The Development Editions: Acer Windows Mixed Reality, HP Windows Mixed Reality, Microsoft HoloLens

So, Microsoft is busy, but not on VR console gaming hardware explicitly. With core VR hardware tech now in the bag and Windows Mixed Reality headsets launching later this year, adding VR support to the Xbox One X will be just a matter of will and marketing. The heavy lifting is done, with the business risk of hardware development spread comfortably across a much broader field than just console gaming.

Bethesda and Ubisoft Step Up

While many of E3’s AAA game developers continue to talk about their internal R&D research efforts, most seem to be biding their time until manufacturers can reduce prices and remove cords. They seem largely content to let indie developers work out the kinks of VR’s UI/UX, and steadily drive adoption.

Bethesda and Ubisoft on the other hand made it abundantly clear that they do not intend to remain on the sidelines at this critical moment when the lasting conventions of VR are being decided.

One of the first thoughts to cross the mind of just about every owner of the original Oculus DK1 was, “I can’t wait for Skyrim”. As it turns out, first person shooters were never going to be an effortless fit for VR. Many core game mechanics had to be completely reimagined (combat systems, traversal, inventory management, etc.) in order to deliver a comfortable and satisfying FPS game in VR. But with a stable of IP that includes Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Doom, few publishers have more to gain by nailing the VR FPS than Bethesda, and for those who waited over five hours in line for a ten-minute demo at Bethesda’s booth, the consensus is that they are killing it.

For many, Skyrim is all they ever really asked of VR.

While Bethesda is laser-focused on FPS, Ubisoft is trying everything. An early adopter of VR, Ubisoft continues to grow its catalog of wildly different game types. Coming soon from Ubisoft are Transference, an impenetrable sci-fi puzzler done in collaboration with Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision, and Space Junkies, a jet-pack arena shooter.

Honestly, I have no idea what the hell this is.

Crossover IP Titles

There were some interesting announcements this year of VR titles that leverage IP from other media. We’ve seen some disappointing efforts in this regard (Looking at you, The Martian VR Experience), and some good ones (Rick and Morty). Announcements this year included a Breaking Bad VR experience, and several The Walking Dead VR titles.

Yes, please!

All of these will be fully rendered titles and not crappy 360 caps. It’s also very encouraging that both of these efforts will be helmed by their creators — Vince Gilligan and Robert Kirkman respectively — and not shuffled off to third-tier studios for rapid turnaround.

Overall: A Year In-between

Last year’s E3 served as consumer VR’s coming out party, with headset launches from Oculus, HTC, and Sony driving the show’s considerable buzz. Since then a healthy number of early adopters have pounced, establishing a toehold VR market robust enough to fan the efforts of giants like Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Sony as they pour resources into their respective long-term VR visions. Those companies’ visions are vast, with gaming occupying only a sliver of those roadmaps, leaving E3 with a somewhat limited view of the road ahead for VR.

Even with no major hardware updates, an embryonic VR install base, and an overriding focus on selling games rather than developing them, E3 2017 was still able to provide some signals as to the health of the VR industry, and no bad news for VR. AAA games are in the pipeline, the big companies who took the leap last year are still in it — and in most cases doubling down. On the whole, the patient remains in good health.

About the Author

Matthew Hales is VP of Immersive Technology and a founding member of TurboSquid, the world’s largest provider of 3D content. Drawing on over two decades of experience in stereoscopic 3D, Matthew now heads up TurboSquid’s Virtual Reality Lab, focused on VR, AR, photogrammetry and other immersive technologies.

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