Virtual Reality is here. Unfortunately, it arrived in that awkward, geeky teenager stage that’s initially going to have limited appeal (see Time magazine cover above). The hardware is first-gen, the games for VR are just starting to come out, and the cost to get started in VR is truly staggering for most people. (For Oculus Rift and Vale/HTC Vive: $600 or more, and that’s not including the beefy gaming computer behind it). But despite all the initial flaws and challenges, I am really excited about VR.
The one that started it all, the Oculus Rift kicked off the VR resurgence (or resurrection might be more accurate). After several years of CES demo units that never made it into consumers’ hands and a billion dollar acquisition by Facebook, the virtual has finally become real. Notable characteristics of the Rift are that it has very specific hardware guidelines for the type of computer you need to have, there won’t be touch controllers (motion-tracking) until later this year, and it is primarily designed to be used sitting down with a conventional X-Box 360 controller (which it ships with). To see the potential of the platform, here are three excellent reviews of the new Oculus Rift I would recommend reading:
Valve & HTC Vive (Pre)
The Vive might not be the first to the party, but with HTC’s hardware design chops and Valve’s game distribution juggernaut of Steam, it might not make any difference. Notable comparisons to the Oculus Rift are that it has a more general hardware requirement list (and a demo that you can run to test your computer’s ability to meet their guidelines), included touch controllers (which help boost the cost $200 more than the Rift), and is primarily designed to be used standing up in a ‘virtual room’. To see the potential of the platform (and these are reviews of the “Pre” version that will be replaced by the consumer version when it ships), here are the comparable reviews from the same three sites as listed above:
At $599 for the Oculus Rift and $799 for the HTC Vive, these are expensive computer peripherals (or gaming systems, if you want to look at it that way). And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of the beefy $1,000+ gaming computer you’ll likely need to already be running. At this point I will be sitting out the first round of VR in the hopes that costs will come down with the second generation and the technology will hopefully improve as well. And my hope is that the platforms can work together to make VR a mass-market success, rather than walled gardens of proprietary platforms like the XBox and Playstation – especially since both the Rift and Vive can run on the same Windows PC.
Hype for new products often indicates a fad, and VR may just be the latest incarnation. But given everything I have seen thus far, I think we’re actually seeing the emergence of a truly new and unexplored realm of gaming and entertainment. Whether it blossoms into a rich ecosystem of new experiences or withers due to expensive hardware and too many competing platforms is a question only time can answer.
(But what about those other VR systems, like the ones from Sony and Microsoft? At this point, I don’t think we have a good enough idea of how they will transform gaming in the same way since the Playstation VR system is going to be limited by the anemic hardware in the PS4, while Microsoft’s approach of augmented reality is kind of a different class of VR by itself.)