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Will 2017 be the year virtual reality gets real?

A woman playing a video game using the Oculus Rift VR headset.

by Alex Hern

From the high-end Oculus Rift to Google and Samsung’s cheaper offerings, VR is aiming for the mainstream. What next?

Virtual Reality is … well, real. The last year has seen the launch of every major VR platform, from high-quality tethered systems like HTC’s Vive and Facebook’s Oculus Rift, through to cheap-and-cheerful smartphone-based platforms like Google’s Daydream and Samsung’s Gear VR.

The early adopters have bought in, the launch games have been launched, and now that the initial flurry of excitement has died down, the more pressing questions are left: how will the platforms evolve? What will you actually be able to do with them? And is VR just a stepping stone anyway, to the even more science-fiction future of augmented reality tech?

At its inception, VR is unquestionably a gaming technology first and foremost. The most expensive and technologically advanced systems have an almost total focus on serving the hardcore gamer market. Even the simpler systems, which lack the pixel-pushing power necessary to satisfy modern players, still end up with a preponderance of games and game-like projects, because that’s what’s easiest to build with the tools available.

So the number one priority for the titans of VR is to carry on winning round game developers and players to prevent the juggernaut from stalling. But if the experiences of the first wave of early adopters is anything to go by, that could prove trickier than it seems.

Right now, the pressures of AAA games seem inimical to those of VR. Games for the hardcore niche of the market are often designed and sold around having durations in the hundreds of hours, with an individual gaming session often lasting three to four hours. In VR, as the devices work today, such heavy use becomes physically punishing: painful for the eyes, face, head and neck, as well as emphatically warned against by the manufacturers.

So instead, many of the highest profile games at launch are designed for quick, powerful experiences. CCP’s Eve Valkyrie and Guerrilla’s RIGS both pack intense multiplayer battles into matches lasting at most five minutes, Rebellion’s Battlezone does the same with single-player tank battles, and even more story focused games like Gunfire’s Chronos and Insomniac’s Edge of Nowhere make it fairly easy to jump in and out of the game.

In the absence of the life-consuming behemoths which constitute gaming for a large number of fans, VR development has instead been colonised by quirkier games, often made by smaller studios with lower budgets who can survive by selling games at a cut price to the comparatively small install base of VR devices.

Google unveils its Daydream VR headset
Google unveils its Daydream VR headset Photograph: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Even those studios are betting on VR growing, though. Dean Hall, the chief executive of indie studio RocketWerkz, wrote that his company’s game, Out of Ammo, “has exceeded our sales predictions and achieved our internal objectives”.

“However, it has been very unprofitable. It is extremely unlikely that it will ever be profitable. We are comfortable with this, and approached it as such. We expected to lose money and we had the funding internally to handle this. Consider then that Out of Ammo has sold unusually well compared to many other VR games.”

Currently, platform owners are subsidising much of the development for VR, in exchange for making those games platform exclusives. But those owners will also need to make money at some point; they’re just capable of playing a longer game than an independent developer.

In that long term, VR needs to be more than an accessory for better games. Back in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg targeted an install base of 50m to 100m Oculus headsets in the device’s first decade. At the top end, that’s equal to the total sales of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One combined, for a device which currently needs a PC to run it that costs more than a PS4 and Xbox One combined.

Of course, Zuckerberg isn’t interested in owning a gaming company, even a successful one. He bought Oculus with the stated intention of offering far more than just better video games. “Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home,” he wrote in the post announcing the company’s acquisition.

Perhaps tellingly, in the years since, Zuckerberg has spent far more time focusing on Oculus’ smaller, more accessible product, the Gear VR, than on the weighty, tethered Rift headset. At the Mobile World Congress conference in February, attendees were handed one to try, causing them to miss the smiling executive strolling past them on his way to the stage.

Last week, Facebook announced it would split Oculus into two divisions, one focusing on PC-based VR, and the other on mobile. It’s clear on which Zuckerberg is staking the future of computing, and it’s not the tethered division which current Oculus CEO Brendan Irbe will be heading up.

If VR is going to become the next major computing platform, pushing mobile phones aside the way they left desktop PCs lagging in their wake, 2017 will be the crunch point: platforms like Google’s Daydream, and whatever Oculus offers as the follow-up to Gear VR, need to arrive with the same pop that tethered VR entered in the past year. More, they need a compelling reason for those who don’t care about gaming to buy in, be that experiences like 360-degree video, or social platforms like those Facebook wants to build.

If they don’t, they could find themselves obsolete before they even hit the mainstream, thanks to the new technologies peeking over the horizon. If VR doesn’t charm, could AR succeed where it failed?

AR devices, like Microsoft’s Hololens and vaporware start-up Magic Leap’s prototypes, allows virtual images to be imprinted over the real world. It’s not cheap – the developer preview of the Hololens retails for almost £3,000 – but it fixes a number of issues which hold VR back when it comes to everyday practicality. Hololens users can still interact with the real world, with their colleagues and companions, rather than locking themselves away in a virtual space. That interaction makes it much more appealing to imagine using Hololens as a general-purpose computing system, fitting in alongside your current life.

Or maybe neither will actually take off in the foreseeable future. For the first time in well over a decade, technology companies worldwide are looking at the end of one hyperbolic growth curve – that of smartphones – with nothing obvious to pick up where it died off. They may have a lot of interest in convincing their shareholders that something is the next big thing, but that doesn’t mean we have to believe them. After all, we live in reality.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

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