Virtual Reality keeps coming back, like a bad smell. Or a nice smell; a pleasing scent of sandalwood for the proponents of VR, as they insist that it’s “the future of gaming” or “the next level of immersion.” Some of us at Maximum PC are skeptics, while others think VR just hasn’t quite hit its stride yet. There are applications beyond gaming, too, with virtual reality headsets now being used in medical and architectural fields.
The problem is that there have already been a few “futures of gaming.” First it was webcam body-tracking, then it was motion controls, then it was touchscreens, then it was motion controls again, then it was, uh, figurines with NFC chips in them? Yeah, we don’t know what Nintendo was smoking when it dreamed up the Amiibo, but the point is that gimmicks like VR have been a part of gaming for a long time, and most of these fads have fallen apart.
Virtual reality has stuck around for longer than most, with the industry currently in its “third phase” of VR products. The technology is improving significantly, too, with newer headsets, such as the Vive Cosmos and Oculus Rift S, claiming to offer superior motion tracking, graphical fidelity, and immersion. The amount of money being poured into VR projects has certainly risen in recent years, with even Facebook swooping in to buy up big VR business Oculus for a staggering $2.3 billion in 2014.
Where is VR heading, though? Examining the history of the industry demonstrates a lack of innovation since the initial introduction of modern VR headsets. While the hardware has improved, the way VR works hasn’t really developed, and there’s yet to be a killer app that makes VR headsets a must-have product. So, we’re left asking: What’s next for virtual reality?
VR TECHNOLOGY has been around since the ’90s, with the earliest commercial attempt being Sega’s brief demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1993, which was then canned before release. A few other manufacturers took a shot, most notably Sony, but the technology wasn’t quite there yet. The experience was fraught with latency issues and tunnel vision, and while it was a hopeful portent of things to come, most gamers weren’t exactly blown away.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and we find ourselves in the mystical, futuristic land of 2012. Plucky tech startup Oculus began a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund its advanced, high-end Rift VR headset, designed by Palmer Luckey, with the support of id Software co-founder John Carmack, a big proponent of VR. The fundraising campaign was massively successful, raising more than 10 times the original goal of $250,000. The finished product was released to consumers in 2016, and was immediately popular, although the initial retail price of $599 meant sales were hardly through the roof.
It was a successful innovation, though, and everyone wanted a slice of the VR pie. Sony came back with a vengeance, giving its successful PlayStation 4 console a VR headset, the inventively named PlayStation VR. Cell phone manufacturer HTC partnered with Valve to produce its own contender, the HTC Vive. The competition was fierce, although primarily between HTC and Oculus; Sony’s offering was console-specific, as opposed to the PC-oriented applications of the other two.
Surprisingly, Sony came out ahead; the PSVR was and still is the single most successful system-tethered VR headset ever, selling over four million units in three years, thanks to a lower initial price, compatibility with Sony’s existing PS Move motion controllers, and an assurance that the headset would work perfectly with the static PS4 hardware. Oculus outsold HTC by a small margin on its first release units, but both the Rift and Vive shared the same problem: needing to work with a wide variety of consumers’ PCs, both pre-built and custom systems.
This is an issue that has plagued the majority of VR headsets designed to work with PCs. The uncertainty as to whether their rig can support a VR platform drives potential buyers away. With the PSVR, it was simple: If you have a PS4, you can use it. With PC-tethered VR headsets, consumers had to ensure that the system they had was capable of running games in VR—and with a huge variety of custom-built machines in the homes of PC gamers across the globe, that became a problem.
Of course, the companies behind VR were aware of this, and working on solutions. Oculus produced the Oculus Go, a PC-less offering that went without wires thanks to an integrated Qualcomm chip to handle graphics. It wasn’t incredible in terms of graphical fidelity, but it sold well, even exceeding Rift sales in some markets. The more powerful follow-up, the Oculus Quest, was released recently, and you can find our review of it in this very issue.
A different strategy was employed by Samsung, which collaborated with Oculus to corner a slice of the market with a super-cheap solution: a VR headset with a slot for a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, which acted both as a screen and CPU. It sort of worked; the GearVR headset contained its own hardware for motion controls and head tracking, and at less than $100, it was far more affordable than other options, although it did require the user to own a Galaxy phone.
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