Back to reality

Today Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced they were getting into the VR/AR business. I wondered aloud if they were doing this as a proof of concept for hardware manufacturers and experience developers in a similar spirit to Google’s creation of its Nexus phones, or if they were looking to create an entirely new platform of their own to compete with Oculus, HTC, Sony and others.

The proof-of-concept path makes sense as Intel looks to push technology and their own way into new revenue streams as their traditional high-end chip business declines. There is some evidence to suggest they’re going this way with the subsequent announcement that they’re partnering with Microsoft to ensure their hardware is compatible with Microsoft’s efforts in the space.

Creating a new platform all its own is an entirely different proposition. Evidence in this camp includes the establishment of a Hollywood outpost to work with creators, along with Krzanich’s own ridiculous Medium post linked to above. The outpost though suggests Intel get at least one thing right: content is everything.

A ridiculous video to accompany a ridiculous announcement

The variety of players in this nascent market means either the (currently) small audience for VR gets spread across a series of niche platforms or (and far more likely), audiences coalesce around 2–3 offerings (likely Oculus & HTC) and the subsequent network efforts of content creators and shared experience work their magic — and leave everyone else out in the cold (see the 3DO, Dreamcast, Nvidia Shield, etc. Welp.).

Often neglected is the audience — minimum viable audience (MVA) to put it awkwardly into startup-speak. The reason so few games get created with two player experiences on a shared screen is because the effort required to do so (game design, technology, art etc.) is immense, and the percentage of console owners with a second controller is a tiny fraction of the addressable market.

When the Xbox One launched with a Kinect in every box, it was an attempt to broaden the audience for developers. Games are hard and expensive and so developers will shift to the lowest common denominator not for lack of vision, but simply trying to stay in business (I say this as someone who worked on games for Mattel and Nickelodeon among others — they kept the lights on). In the last generation of consoles people weren’t making Kinect games, or rather the people Microsoft wanted to make Kinect games weren’t making them. Bundling the Kinect with the Xbox One was ultimately a failed experiment, but someone had to move the market forward, and Microsoft tried valiantly to do so.

…a US$500 virtual-reality peripheral will have to sell more than a US$50 second controller traditionally does…

This is perhaps the biggest challenge for Sony. They have a hit on their hands in the PS4, but only runaway success of Playstation VR (launching in October) will mean they can level the playing field. Think about that for a moment: a US$500 virtual-reality peripheral will have to sell more than a US$50 second controller traditionally does. HTC and Oculus have a slightly easier time, but that is assuming you already have a high-end PC capable of running the games; that Macbook is not going to cut it. On the plus side, Sony knows what goes into building these platforms — it’s been doing so very successfully for 20+ years.

It’s ultimately still day one in what is a very long game. The joke among VR enthusiasts is that people are split into two camps: those who know VR is the future, and those who haven’t tried it yet. I tried it, but I think I was already a believer (albeit a hopeful one).

But knowing it is the future and knowing it is a viable business are two different things. Oculus, HTC and others are trying to make a market. The day you see Activision-Blizzard, Ubisoft or Take Two put the weight of their top-tier talent behind a title (not to mention the exorbitant development budgets that come with doing so), you’ll know not only that the market was built, but that the people came.

#nowplaying Tragic on the Dancefloor by Girl Friend

I’m trying to write every day. Why don’t you try too?