The Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) has been promoting the rise of products in the VR space, having started a separate conference called VRDC that runs in September. At GDC this past week in San Francisco, the expo floor, while packed with the usual game demos and booths from around the industry, was also overrun with VR-based products. VR has barely breached the consumer market yet, but there were dozens of booths that were showing off alternative technologies. There were multiple examples of room-scale VR, along with controllers and even clothing that purports to heighten the immersive experience that VR supposedly gives users.
On Wednesday, which signaled the opening of the show floor, I went in knowing that this was going to be a running pattern. I had been receiving press emails in the weeks leading up to the conference from all the companies that wanted to make their exhibit stand out. I noticed immediately that many of the emails I received were not from games but from alternate VR controllers. Instead of the joysticks that come with the HTC Vive or simply using any number of familiar controllers, you can wear gloves that allow you to interact in VR or a vest that gives you additional sensations in game combat scenarios. You can get a pair of boots that claim to reduce motion sickness or wear a backpack that allows you to traverse a room.
This isn’t a full rundown of the VR selection. I didn’t even have time to check out Facebook’s Oculus booth, which combined the two brands for one of the first times publicly. What I was looking out for were the off-brand efforts; the small companies with unrecognizable names in the mainstream tech industry that wanted to break into VR. We already have a number of headsets to choose from–the Vive, the Rift, the PSVR, the Daydream, the Cardboard–but what about those weird gloves I mentioned?
I ran across two booths that were experimenting with glove technology. One was Bend Labs, which created bendable sensors that can be used to track finger movements. It originally developed the technology for the medical space but were highlighting how you can use gloves outfitted with those sensors to pick up objects in VR. I have small hands, so the demo gloves were a little big for me, and therefore didn’t respond exactly to my movements. Having the ability to pick up objects in VR–which in this demo was a variety of blocks, guns, and swords–is also not an exact science since you can’t fully feel the object in your hand. Although, if you want to feel more involved in your virtual reality experience, being able to swat things with your hand or pick things up definitely adds another level.
CaptoGlove, which had a booth nearby, were further along in their VR glove experiment. While Bend Labs’ demo was very much a prototype, CaptoGlove says it’s on the way to a Kickstarter next week and have already started production on units. Its website touts it as the “first immediately usable virtual reality wearable gaming motion controller,” but it has use outside VR. With its software, a user can create hand controls for almost any PC game (one GDC attendee was using the glove to play Left 4 Dead 2 and literally held their hand in the shape of a gun). It’s expected to retail fully at around $250, so I’m expecting this modern Power Glove might appeal to gamers with a little extra cash, but little elsewhere.
The market for alternate VR controllers and tech is just too small at this point to estimate if any will be profitable. It’s still unclear if the basic VR industry, with its big-name headsets–has longevity. Developers are working to expand the VR/AR industry, and most think it’s here to stay, according to the 2016 VRDC Innovation Report, but there are concerns, mainly about how to cross the motion sickness barrier and with pricing. Pricing is an especially tough nut to crack since it could cost up to $2,000 to have a working HTC Vive in your home.
“If a family of four has to shell out $4,000 to play one game together, you’re not going to get widespread adoption,” one respondent noted in the survey.
Sales numbers haven’t been too bad, even if they’ve been a little lackluster. PlayStation VR was on track to hit their goal of one million headsets sold after launching towards the end of 2016. It’s one of the most accessible headsets on the market since all you need is to plug it into a PS4 you might already own. Rift and Vive numbers are significantly lower due to them being niche PC peripherals rather than a console plug-in.
So the VR market isn’t doing terribly in its first couple years, but how much people would be willing to spend on even more peripherals and modules remains to be seen, especially with little content to back it up. There were products on the show floor with even more niche appeal than alternative controllers. Woojer has created a haptic, vibration-heavy vest that supposedly works to enhance audio experiences, including those in games. If you get shot in-game, for example, the vest will vibrate in the area where you were shot. It mimics the sensation of being at a concert; how your body buzzes when near a speaker. I’m not an audiophile, so I’m not sure what people of that ilk would get out of this product, but it seems to have little value outside of people who want to be at a concert all the time and will spend hundreds of dollars to get there.
But why would you spend any money on these things? Frankly, I’m not sure. The VR industry is exploding, with multiple headsets to choose from in a number of different price points. GDC’s expo proved that not only are people working to cash in on this market but are willing to try any method to do so.
In terms of the consumer gamer market, it’s a large unknown. For other industries, there might be some hope. Room-scale VR technologies–or ones that don’t require so many trippable wires–are appealing to people in the medical field, for instance. Sixsense’s STEM System uses electromagnetic technology to produce a full-body representation in VR, which has been used to test demonstrations on medical procedures. Hyperverse’s room-scale VR tech includes a heavy backpack that contains the computer and the camera you’d need to hook up to sensors that can be spread across a ceiling, but it might be on the verge of creating something to replace laser tag.
There’s a lot of unknowns in VR. Who knows if any of these products will sell, or if they’d make a dent at all. My theory is that a lot of them are too niche and specific to be commercially viable, with many moving into the realm of the unnecessary. With questions about VR mostly surrounding price, it seems even stranger that people would work to create even more things for customers to purchase.
What I can say from my time at GDC though is that there is no shortage of people who are working to make VR viable in the long term or people who want to explore it. Even if their products end up having little impact, they can say they experimented with it.