With the first wave of hardware now established in homes, where does the VR industry go next?
With the first wave of hardware now in homes, where next for VR?
After years of growing expectation, and with a couple of problematic hardware launches now out of the way, the age of virtual reality is finally upon us. From this side of Rift and Vive’s rocky emergence, the world feels little different, but few ever expected it to be: forecasters and industry pioneers have long warned that VR could take five, maybe even ten, years to permeate into mainstream consciousness. The big question for now, then, is: where do we go from here?
For many early adopters, HTC and Oculus’s fumbled hardware releases sullied what should have been a triumphant couple of months – not least in the case of Rift Kickstarter backers, some seeing hardware reach retail outlets before their own preorders were honoured. HTC did little better, apparently prioritising orders by the date payment was received rather than when the order was actually placed – a misjudgment that meant customers who paid through PayPal, which transfers money instantly, were prioritised over card payments even if the order was placed at a later date. Any desire to celebrate a headset’s eventual arrival was further extinguished by a predominantly underwhelming launch lineup that failed to make a convincing case for the sizeable outlay required for either setup. The realities of room-scale VR in average-sized homes also quickly proved more frustrating than it did revelatory. But despite all of this, and the growing and inevitable wave of injuries sustained from falling over or walking into walls, the promise of VR remains as potent as it has ever been. Bruises and disappointment will fade. The real challenge now facing VR is that of convincing everyone who isn’t prepared to stump up £500 for unproven technology on faith alone.
“Releasing new hardware, especially if it’s not just a new console but a whole new way of delivering entertainment, is always fraught with danger,” Jason Kingsley, CEO of Sniper Elite and Battlezone studio Rebellion, notes. “People are also conservative: they naturally know what they like and like what they know, and they rarely vote for change. It’s always an uphill battle to sell something like VR when nobody has VR yet – it’s like when telly was first being introduced and they were marketing it on the radio. It misses the point entirely.
“There aren’t any elegant words we can use to describe what we’re talking
about yet, which is both wonderful – because it means that we’re at the cutting edge – but also slightly awkward when we try to communicate to players what a VR game is.”
One part of
the strategy for surmounting that marketing hump is simply getting HMDs onto people’s heads, whether that means demo pods in videogame stores and shopping centres, or more exciting large-scale endeavours such as Starbreeze’s IMAX VR collaboration – which stemmed from initial plans to build an LA-based VR arcade called Project Starcade – Alton Towers’ VR rollercoaster Galactica, or The Void’s ‘hyper-reality’ offering. In most cases, that first experience is enough to convince people of virtual reality’s potential, and even if they don’t rush out immediately to buy a setup, their initial impressions will percolate over time and they might just rave about it to friends with more disposable cash.
“When people – journalists, sceptics, enthusiasts, and even people who have no skin in the game – have come to try the headset [at our studio], almost every single one of them came away convinced that there was something very compelling and different about VR,” Kingsley says. “Now, obviously that doesn’t mean that the games themselves will meet those expectations, but it does show that it’s not just about strapping a monitor to your head.”
Developments such as AMD’s $199 VR-ready RX480 graphics card, and the competitors that will surely follow in its low-cost trail, will help to lower the barrier to entry and allow VR setups to make the daunting jump from expensive curios to must-have kit, but right now Kingsley’s focused on even more affordable hardware: PlayStation VR.
“We’re all waiting for the first massmarket units, which will presumably be manufactured in the millions rather than in the thousands,” he says. “And as far as I’m concerned, PlayStation VR is the first commercial-scale massmarket virtual reality headset that’s being released. The others are excellent pieces of specialist hobby kit, but they’re in very limited supply, they’re very expensive, and you need a fast PC. None of that is the case with PSVR.”
So where does that leave something such as StarVR? Starbreeze Studios’ panoramic, no holds-barred headset is aimed squarely at the premium end of an already premium market, being shaped by a pair of established players that are themselves about to be undercut by PlayStation VR (though Sony’s commercial advantage is lessened if you factor in the cost of revised PlayStation hardware). Up until now, the Swedish studio has been hand-building each prototype, but a recent deal with Acer means it now has the manufacturing clout to compete on numbers. Is there room for another highpriced headset at this early stage?
“Simply put, we’re creating a premium experience,” Starbreeze CTO
Emmanuel Marquez tells us. “We definitely have room to differentiate ourselves, especially with the IMAX collaboration putting the StarVR headset in IMAX VR centres all across the world. And there are so many business applications for virtual reality that are more demanding on specs and not as price sensitive. We’re very comfortable catering to the pro market as our focus.”
Kingsley takes a similarly confident position, likening the VR market to that of TVs, where there’s a continual churn of upgrading in which customers invest at their own pace rather than in step with console-style generational leaps. It’s worth noting, too, that VR is being positioned as an additive experience rather than a replacement for HD monitors (Kingsley stresses that VR is only one of Rebellion’s interests, and that he loves flatscreen games, too), and that removes some of the pressure that tech such as 3DTV placed on itself by trying, and failing, to replace the status quo. VR is trying to carve out a new space, rather than redefine an old one.
“I think there’s a lot of room in this industry,” Kingsley says. “It’s probably going to feel a bit crowded now because we really are at the beginning of a new form of medium, and games are only one very small piece of that.”
With so many
open goals, then, it’s not surprising to see such a wide range of visions for what VR should be. Room scale or seated? Hobbyist or massmarket? Mobile or tethered? But the other rift in the industry concerns positional tracking, and whether experiences and games which lack it should be considered ‘proper’ VR. There are already a raft of mobile-phone-based headsets on the market of varying quality, and Samsung’s GearVR (which is only compatible with certain Samsung phones) represents the best of them. But even that rather expensive setup – at least if you don’t already have the required phone – can’t achieve the kind of positional tracking that makes PSVR, Rift and Vive sessions feel so magical.
Google’s recently announced Daydream project doesn’t look to address that problem, either, but its open-source design leaves space for enterprising creators to rectify that.
Low-cost headsets represent an opportunity to spread the word, but the gulf between the kind of experience you can have using Google’s Cardboard and that which you’d have on an all-singing Vive setup is vast enough that the two things hardly seem related at all. And this, Kingsley warns, could be a problem.
“I actually think it’s really dangerous, and that there are a few red herrings in the VR space,” he says. “The problem with [some of these devices] is that they don’t show very complex things, and don’t track head movement properly in the way that you need in order to get proper immersion, so it sort of gives people a falsely low-fi experience of what good VR could be. The danger is that they come away from that not convinced that VR is a good thing. I’m a little concerned that they might actually not be impressive enough for people, and then
“The danger is that people come away from these devices not convinced that VR is a good thing”
people think that they’ve tried VR and then they go, ‘VR’s a bit crap, really.’”
They’re just as likely to be disappointed if they play Final Approach on Vive, however. The shift from videogames’ proven rulebook to VR’s uncharted waters has resulted in a kind of awkward shuffle in which developers have assembled new forms from a combination of salvaged old parts and jury-rigged new ones. Some of these creations are greater than the sum of their parts, while others come apart at the seams. Even an underwhelming game can still be a remarkable experience in VR, but with the first wave of releases reviewing quite poorly, do developers need to rethink their approach, or is this just a natural part of being at the beginning of a transitional period?
“I think lots of people are struggling with the language of VR, and trying to figure out what to do with it,” Kingsley says. “And I think that’s a natural consequence of very skilled teams finding themselves with a bunch of established rules that don’t work anymore.”
It will take
time, then, for a new rulebook to be written, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to experiment. “We, and I mean we as an industry, definitely need to keep in mind that we need to keep pushing for VR’s ‘killer app’,” Marquez says. “We need to show the user, consumer or otherwise, what the application is and why it’s so awesome. We all still have much to learn about VR, what works and what doesn’t, and we need to keep evolving our different experiences to accommodate for this.
“We’ve always said we wanted to be a second-generation HMD in this second age of VR, but we feel that the current-gen HMDs are doing a great job of enthusing people and spreading the gospel of VR. Getting it in the hands of as many people as possible is crucial for VR to take off, and we have to remember that this isn’t 3D glasses or 360 video – people need to have that first experience in Tilt Brush or be amazed by a full cinematic experience like [Starbreeze’s immersive cinematic creation] Cockatoo Spritz to understand the power of the medium. HMD technology will certainly continuously evolve, and our implementation of experiences for them will evolve to match – we’ll see new leaps of innovation happen every year for a while longer, I think.”
We won’t have to wait very long for the next wave of advancement. StarVR isn’t the only headset gunning for the top end of the market, and AMD’s wireless Sulon Q, armed with inside-out positional tracking and powerful on-board processing, is set to join the fight this year. AMD promises “console-quality” graphics in a powerful VR package, but it also has some remarkable AR ambitions, as illustrated by its Magic Beans Demo (www.bit.ly/25Lw9Qf), which brings Jack And The Beanstalk to the Sulon offices. Microsoft, too, has yet to unleash its AR-focused HoloLens – and it has now revealed that it plans to share with other hardware manufacturers the Windows Holographic platform that powers it.
Rather than converge, the VR landscape looks set to become an increasingly convoluted space, then, as every new entrant introduces yet another quirk or angle. And that, for all the inevitable missteps that will occur along the way, is something to be celebrated.
“Seeing all the different creative and technical disciplines trying to figure everything out is hugely gratifying,” says Marquez. “The most important factor to VR’s development is creating new experiences and technical innovation.”
Kingsley agrees: “I’m very impressed with what all of the manufacturers like HTC and Oculus have done in different ways. They’ve really pushed the high end of VR. I felt such an incredible sense of immersion when that Aperture robot came through the door – it was awesome, and a bit frightening that Pandora’s box has been opened. We’re at the beginning of properly simulating real experiences. We’re obviously not there yet, because it’s distinguishable from real life, but we’re someway down that slope. I mean, we’re now talking about synthetic environments that can convince the early human that’s deep within our brain stem, the one that grew up on the savannas of Africa, that we’re somewhere different.”
FROM TOP Jason Kingsley, CEO of Rebellion; Starbreeze CTO Emmanuel Marquez
FROM LEFT Google’s Daydream – not ready for consumer testing just yet; AMD’s wireless Sulon Q, which has ambitions in both VR and AR; Sony’s PSVR, due out in October