Sometimes it seems like thebattle to be the must-have Christmas gift starts earlier every year. On Tuesday, 2016’s battle began in earnest, with the announcement of Sony’s virtual reality headset, the PlayStation VR.
The headset, which will cost £350 on its launch in October, is the third such device to be revealed in last few months. It will launch to stiff competition from Facebook-owned VR firm Oculus and Taiwanese hardware firm HTC, each of which are bringing their own versions to the market in the coming weeks.
The Oculus Rift headset, which sells for $599 (it is only priced in US dollars), is aimed at hardcore gamers. The device ships with an Xbox controller and two games, which you play sitting at a desk. For those who pre-ordered early, they’ll be playing by the end of the month.
HTC’s Vive, in contrast, is £689, but features an array of cameras on the front and a field tracking system so players can wander around their house if they so desire. Vive will be arriving in April.
While Sony has already lost the race to be first to market, it still has an ace in its pocket: price. Not only is the headset itself significantly less than the Vive or Rift, it only requires a £250 PS4 (and £30 camera) to use. The other two, by contrast, need a high-end gaming PC which can easily top £1,000 on its own.
If you’re wondering who would spend north of £1,500 on a bundle of hardware which is currently only useful for playing a small selection of purpose-made videogames, the chances are you haven’t tried the latest generation of virtual reality headsets yourself.
As technology has progressed, a lot of the problems that plagued previous generations have faded, leaving a sense of wonder unlike any other entertainment medium. Eve: Valkyrie, one of two games that comes free with the Rift, throws you into a Star Wars-style dogfight in space, your fighter ducking between capital ships the size of cities. The experience is vertiginous, disorienting, and giddyingly fun.
Regardless of who wins, all three of the VR pioneers are confident that they have what it takes to make VR a booming new business. But others are more cautious about the technology’s prospects – warning that it could be the new 3D TV: an expensive purchase which is awkward to use and which never quite gets the content it needs to become a winner.
If this all feels a bit déjà vu it is because virtual reality has been the “next big thing” before.
In 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a chunky monochromatic headset which let its owners play simple games in stereoscopic 3D. Unlike today’s VR devices, it was far too big to be simply worn as a head-mounted display. Instead gamers had to sit at a desk and lean in.
The Virtual Boy sold abysmally – the dream was there; the technology wasn’t. The screens were too heavy, too low-resolution and too slow to refresh, giving users thumping headaches and nausea, while the computers behind them were barely powerful enough to render conventional 3D graphics, let alone do it for two screens at once.
Having failed once, VR entered a fallow period, and its revival this year can be attributed to two things: a product, and a person.
The person is Palmer Luckey, the 23-year-old founder of Oculus VR. Luckey came from outside the Silicon Valley world, and was too young to even remember the first wave of VR failures. So when he decided he wanted to play the PC games he was obsessed with in an even more immersive way than the six monitor setup that he’d built in his parents home, no-one told him that it had already been tried and failed.
So, aged 19, he built himself a VR headset. It was a shaky prototype,but enough to attract attention: first from investors, and later from a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, which netted $2.5m.
But Luckey wouldn’t have been able to build anything were it not for the dominance of a seemingly unrelated product: the smartphone.
At first glance, the launch of the iPhone in 2007 shouldn’t have much to do with the rise of virtual reality. But the rapid growth of touchscreen smartphones helped fund improvements to a number of technologies which would go on to be crucial for VR headsets, from accelerometers used to track head movement to compact, high-resolution screens.
Smartphones also helped creators develop a rough-and-ready form of VR, by doing little more than strapping a powerful phone to their faces. At the cheap end of that spectrum is Google Cardboard, which really is just a phone and a cardboard holder in which to bury your face. Slightly more advanced is the Gear VR – also made by Oculus – which uses a Samsung Galaxy phone and sells for £80.
But those experiences pale in comparison to the real VR deal. A phone isn’t powerful enough to render smooth, detailed graphics, and even with the Gear VR add-on, there is a noticeable disconnect with reality.
For anyone a little prone to nausea, however, that could be a breaking point. Virtual reality already pushes what some people can take to the limit, inspiring motion sickness as their inner-ear rebels against the evidence provided by their eyes.
But for now, the hurdle for the market is less about what will happen when people put the headsets on, and more about how they might be convinced to give them a try in the first place.
Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester Research, says “There will be for some time a chicken-and-egg issue: publishers and brands need reach to develop VR content and consumers want content to be ready (if they are going) to spend a premium on these new VR headsets. We’ll certainly see early adopters start buying VR headsets, probably over a couple of million in the next 12 months, but this won’t be enough.
“Reach will be extremely limited, as the technology will only attract a niche set of users – especially gamers – in the first two years.”
So Sony, Oculus and HTC should all settle in for the long haul. Having the best first version of the hardware, the first launch or being the cheapest at Christmas won’t be enough to win the war. There’s a long slog ahead.