Virtual Reality Realities: Summer 2016
Originally posted on Platformonomics
The HTC Vive is magical. You have not experienced what VR can be unless you have tried the Vive. Accurate tracking makes it nausea-free. Room-scale allows freedom of movement (and self-driving cars will free up garages everywhere for room-scale VR). Precision controllers offer both fine-grained manipulation and remarkably effective emulation of many kinds of real-world devices. Much like the iPhone, you can look at version one and realize it will get so much better over time.
HTC has delivered on the manufacturing and distribution and seem to be catching up to demand, while Valve rocked the software with SteamVR. Even mundane and unsung components like setup and the tutorial are extremely well done. Apps like Tiltbrush, Job Simulator and The Lab are a lot of fun, and more importantly, give a taste of what can be done with the new medium.
I get to take a small victory lap for my cautionary stance on Oculus, but I wasn’t expecting the extent of the trainwreck it has become. Beyond a badly botched launch, Oculus shipped a product that is both incomplete and inferior to the Vive (with the notable exception of Oculus’ integrated audio headset; the Vive went with the much-beloved tangled earbud experience). Controllers are not an afterthought to be shipped months later and inferior tracking not only falls short of the Vive, but is the root of a bigger problem. The Oculus — dubbed by some the Oculus Retch — has a nausea problem which the company acknowledges by handing out ginger candy with demos and rating games by how likely they are to make you sick. Oculus also ran an old-school and unimaginative playbook to build their software portfolio, focusing on ports of very traditional game titles that do little to exploit the new medium and probably exacerbate motion sickness. Along the way, they have pissed off developers with attempts to lock games to their platform and pushing to impose their app store tax despite earlier promises to be an open platform. Despite all the hype and the billions of dollars, the Oculus thus far is a miss and a black mark for Facebook’s much heralded acquisition track record.
Developers are shaking their heads about Oculus and shifting allegiance to the Vive (and the distribution muscle of Steam), reversing Oculus’ earlier lead (based in part on generous cash payments). As Oculus is a bit of a wounded animal, we may see erratic behavior from them as their plight becomes better understood both inside and outside the company. They are already promising better tracking and racing to ship their Touch controllers (both of which will drive price up — will mother Facebook be asked to bankroll free upgrades or will they hurry along to version 2?).
The Oculus Origin Story
I previously posited: “One of the biggest unanswered questions in the history of VR is to what degree Oculus raised venture money and then sold themselves to Facebook based on demonstrations of Valve’s technology rather than their own.” The picture of Mark Zuckerberg wearing the Valve headset was telling, but we now have additional support for what happened. I wonder how long before Palmer Luckey departs Facebook? Doing PR (and apologizing) every day has to be wearing thin.
And Then There Were Three
This fall Sony will ship PlaystationVR. They have done a nice job on the hardware and are carefully curating their software library. More importantly, they’ll have upwards of 50 million Playstations to attach to, with a lower headset price than either Oculus or Vive, never mind not needing a powerful gaming PC.
Mobile VR, i.e. building on the ARM ecosystem plus rapidly improving mobile GPU capabilities, is still a couple years away from being performant enough to be competitive with the PC-based headsets (although the Oculus/Vive rivalry has kicked the AMD/NVIDIA GPU rivalry into high gear as well). Apple and Google are basically sitting on the fence waiting for Moore’s Law to do its thing, with Apple waiting far more patiently than Google who are congenitally unable to resist messing with Facebook and Samsung.
Investing in VR
The venture capitalists are in the “Trough of Thumbsucking™” (sorry Gartner) as they try to predict near-term headset sales and wonder not only how big the market will be, but also when precisely it will go “mainstream” so they can swoop in just in time to reap the big returns. The result is virtual reality is in a strange place where it is often too real to invest on conviction (or a Vive demo) and too early to invest on the numbers, so the VCs are waiting while subjecting us all to lengthy soliloquies about how they think the market might develop (“To VR or not to VR, that is the question…”). Meanwhile, tons of great work is happening, particularly in Seattle and Los Angeles which look like the two poles for VR (though I’m sure New York City would assert they are the leaders in VR, just, well, because…). Seattle has technology and games and LA content.
Your assignment for the summer is to try the Vive and get a taste of the VR future. VR has to be experienced to be appreciated (and is mandatory for discussing it in any form). If you have only done Oculus, Gear VR or, god forbid, 360 videos on your phone (aka NOT VR!!!), you can’t fully appreciate what is coming.