Consumer VR has yet to establish itself as a viable commercial product or mass-market artistic medium, and it’s still possible that it never will. But there’s no denying that 2016 was a huge turning point, both socially and technologically. VR didn’t exactly soar this year — but it didn’t crash and burn, either.
At the beginning of 2016, virtual reality was almost purely the province of developers, artists, and the lucky few who got to see their work. Concepts were usually more important than execution, and VR experiences didn’t have to be good, just novel. The only real options for most people to try it were the Samsung Gear VR, an interesting product with a lot of flaws, and the simple Google Cardboard.
The year didn’t get off to an auspicious start. The first high-end VR system launch, the Oculus Rift in March, was a bit of a mess. The headset had some great features but cost far more than people expected. It felt incomplete without motion controllers, and a component shortage made it almost impossible to find. The HTC Vive — which came soon after — felt more powerful, but it was barely a consumer device, and selling it as one laid bare how sparse experiences still were. At the same time, it proved that VR could stay entertaining for weeks or months instead of minutes.
Outside the big commercial headset launches, super-ambitious VR entertainment company The Void launched its first experience in Times Square, to mixed reviews. The Chinese VR market got bigger and more interesting, focusing on compact, self-contained designs and special features. The Sundance and Tribeca film festivals made VR a big part of their lineup, and The Verge co-hosted a pop-up exhibit with the Toronto International Film Festival.
Late fall saw a few highlights. Sony’s PlayStation VR showed how VR could fit with the typical console gaming experience, with uniquely trippy games like Thumper and Rez. Daydream, a mobile VR platform built into Android, put Google’s weight behind virtual reality. Then Oculus made up for its past stumbles by releasing the best VR controllers ever made, alongside clever games like Superhot and I Expect You To Die. These still don’t feel as full-featured as non-VR games, but they’re a far cry from anything we saw in 2015.
Inside virtual reality, we’ve started figuring out its weak points — the potential for harassment, problems with embodiment, and confusion about how to fit it into the existing worlds of gaming and film. Also, nobody can make money developing for it.
These could be signs that VR is still too flawed to succeed, or they could be the growing pains that let it flourish down the road. It’s frustrating to have yet another year of uncertainty ahead of us, but it’s also a good sign that VR has at least squeaked through one of its biggest transitions. — Adi Robertson