2016 - The Year of Virtual Reality

Fellow lovers of tech, it seems that the impending day is drawing near. Preparations must be made. Graphics cards must be upgraded. Or, if you want, get a PS4. That works too.

Virtual reality is finally becoming a reality this year. Unless you count the Virtual Boy, then I suppose this year contains a “rebirth” so to speak. Within the industry it seems that there is a general excitement for this new technology to hit the market and prove to consumers that VR is the future and not just another gimmick chasing a pipe dream.

For those that have tried Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR for themselves, it seems that they have no doubts that this is going to have a huge impact going forward. As an avid listener of the podcasts over at Kinda Funny, Colin Moriarty and Greg Miller have repeatedly said that PlayStation VR is not another over-hyped yet underpowered piece of hardware. For many like Greg and Colin that have tried the tech for themselves and gotten a taste of the forbidden fruit, there seems to be a general consensus that there is something different this time. This isn’t another PlayStation branded 3D monitor, Virtual Boy, or Microsoft Kinect. Rather, VR is going to be another way to play.

This past Wednesday, pre-orders went live for Oculus Rift which were quickly met with outrage at the price point of $599. To put this into perspective, it was originally said that the headset was going to hit the market at around $300 or $400. Needless to say, $200 isn’t just chunk change. That is a substantial boost in price. To soften the blow a bit, Oculus is throwing in Eve: Valkyrie and Lucky’s Tale in addition to an Xbox One controller. All in all, I would estimate that would add about $150-$160 to the price tag (assuming that Eve would be $60 at retail, Lucky’s Tale would be $30, and an Xbox One controller would be around $60). This is assuming that you have a PC that can run Oculus Rift. If you don’t have this beast of a machine, that could potentially add a few thousand dollars to your total price tag.

For many, including myself, this pricing knocked Oculus Rift out of my potential VR purchases. My rig can run the hardware, but I am a full time college student with a part time job at a Starbucks kiosk. $600 doesn’t just fall into the bank account overnight, it takes a lot of skimping and penny pinching to bring in that kind of money. For technology that I have yet to truly experience and that has yet to truly prove its longevity and utility, sacrificing quality food and new clothes for five months to afford an Oculus VR headset would be preposterous.

Which brings us to PlayStation VR, the direct competitor in the “VR Space Race”. With pricing rumored to be equal or lesser than a PlayStation 4 ($399 at the moment), the PlayStation VR is setting itself up to be the mass-market entryway into virtual reality. At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, Kazuo Hirai stated that the PlayStation VR has around 200 developers working on over 100 titles. Although these numbers do seem impressive on the surface, I can’t help but wonder how in depth these “games” truly are. Are there really this many developers working on high quality experiences, or are they all making games that serve the purpose of showing off the hardware? Take for instance the games that were released with the EyeToy, the peripheral camera for the PlayStation 2. I specifically remember playing one in which the player had to clean windows by moving around and “washing the windows”. Although the game showed what the camera was capable of tracking and showed off the technology, there was no longevity with that game and it eventually faded into the history books of the gaming industry.

Of course there is also the “odd man out”, the HTC Vive. When I first heard HTC Vive, I subliminally put it on the same level as the Samsung Gear VR in my mind. I doubted that this headset would even make it to the hands of the consumer, and if it did I had faith that it wouldn’t last. That was before I heard the news that Steam had adopted this virtual reality experience as its own. Of course no one is saying that Oculus won’t be compatible with Steam, but the development has to be taken into consideration. When Valve (Portal, Half-Life, Team Fortress) can work directly with the hardware developers to make games that are specifically tailored to work well with the HTC Vive, that definitely adds some appeal to what would initially be a neglected peripheral. As far as pricing goes, there is no information on this headset yet. As previously mentioned CES is taking place this weekend, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some pricing information did get announced, even if it is only an in the ballpark estimate.

As the news leaks out and more information is gathered, it seems that each headset is going to carve out a spot for itself in this competition. If the current trend continues, Oculus Rift is going to go down in history as the brain child that started the virtual reality revolution, but never really took off itself. With that initial price tag putting a foul taste in the consumers’ mouths and no association with any big-name game developers or companies, I can’t shake the feeling that Oculus isn’t going to get the traction that it most likely deserves. PlayStation VR, on the other hand, is going to be the prophet that brings the good news to the common man. If Sony maintains their initial pricing estimate and enters the market at $300-$400, that will allow the 36 million gamers with a PlayStation 4 to have access to a relatively affordable VR peripheral. Once a more “mainstream” tier of average gamers have gotten their hands on this technology, more interest will start to accumulate and the development can really begin to see a boom. With the HTC Vive, it is still hard to tell where this one is going to land in relation to Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. If I had to guess, I would say that it is going to be the PlayStation VR for the PC gamer. In other words, an alternative to the Oculus that is a bit less expensive, but with similar performance. Keep in mind that at the time of writing this article, there is no pricing information for the HTC Vive, and more information is going to change how it shapes up against Oculus and PlayStation when the consumer goes to make his/her choice.

Like many, I have my doubts. However, I have no doubt that this is the start of something big. Will I personally be purchasing one of these devices on day one? Absolutely not. Will I purchase one within a year? More than likely, I will not. Once these devices hit the market developers will be able to see the likes and dislikes of the community. They will be able to see what small oversights there were in design, and rework those for the next generation of VR. More experimentation with the hardware by both the development teams and the community will allow for an expansion of the amount of content that is able to be experienced. Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, and other virtual reality peripherals are very intriguing as it is, but it is when we see Oculus 2.0, PlayStation VR 3, and HTC Vive M2 that virtual reality is going to truly become a force to be reckoned with.

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