Sony has two big pieces of hardware coming out this fall, the PS4 Pro and PlayStation VR, the latter of which releases in just three weeks. Despite a heavy presence at E3, there hasn’t been terribly much buzz around PSVR as of late, with the PS4 Pro announcement, which barely mentioned VR at all, seemingly stealing some of its thunder.
But PSVR will be here shortly, and with it comes VR’s best chance at truly mainstream adoption, at least in theory. With over 40 million PS4s out in the world, this is the first time a mainstream VR set has been able to run on a console rather than a relatively pricey PC. PSVR’s competitors, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, require the sorts of PCs that most people won’t just have lying around, but a PS4 in the house? That’s a much more common occurrence.
Part of me is starting to wonder what exactly happens if PSVR is not the breakout moment VR needs. While I wouldn’t call the Vive or the Rift “unsuccessful,” if you manage to escape from the bubble of tech journalism, VR has certainly not been adopted into the mainstream, despite the retail releases of these two devices.
PSVR will be more “low-end” than the Rift and Vive, in terms of its capabilities, and unfortunately the biggest PSVR story that came out of E3 this year was a specific demo (Resident Evil 7) that was making even VR veterans motion sick. While I doubt the retail release is going to produce that effect on a larger scale, I do worry that PSVR may struggle to find a wide audience, despite the PS4 install base.
I’ve previously made the argument that Sony, by releasing two $400 pieces of hardware this fall, is essentially asking many consumers who can’t afford both to choose between them. And given the choice between a more powerful PS4, and a PSVR headset in the unproven field of virtual reality, I have to believe many will go with the former. If PS4 Pro was debuting say, next spring or fall, we wouldn’t have this problem, but I do think Sony might end up cannibalizing itself, despite the innate differences between the two pieces of hardware.
But, assuming that PSVR isn’t an outright failure, and maybe the same sort of muted success as the Vive and Rift, where exactly does VR go from here?
There’s always this vague sense that VR really is the future, but the journey to get there has been pretty rocky in this, the official “year one” of the concept. A month from now, we will have three consumer VR headsets on the market, and yet, adoption is very slow, and again, outside of the tech scene, you hear very little about VR in day to day life. Outside of my coworkers, I know exactly zero people that own a headset. Even if they did want to spend the money, “normal” people do not have the PCs to run a headset, and my friends with PS4s probably are not going to spend the additional $400 for relatively unproven tech that will mostly play VR-based minigames rather than the kinds of full releases they’re used to.
After this, breakthroughs seems like they’re going to be hard. If three very different types of VR sets are now on the market, and none appear to be catching fire, what then?
VR is still searching for its killer app, but it’s a weird situation because it isn’t like VR isn’t impressive in its current form. It will absolutely wow almost anyone who tries on a headset, and yet there’s a big gulf between impressing those who try it out and getting people to buy VR and begin using it on a regular basis. I know a few of these people who have made VR a regular part of their routine, but they are few and far between and again, very deep into the tech scene. But someone like me, an avid gamer, has still not found a reason to use my headset more than once in a blue moon, and I genuinely don’t know if I even want to buy a PSVR given how much dust my Rift has been collecting in my closet.
VR seems like it needs to make some more leaps forward before it really explodes into the mainstream. Headsets without wires. Hand tracking without awkward controllers. Not requiring sprawling empty rooms and sensors everywhere. Much higher resolution displays. And above all else, doing all of this while being affordable.
Some of these may be pie in the sky requests, but for many, they’re items I truly believe are holding VR back in a big way. There’s no denying that the current tech is impressive, but it just can’t get over the wall from being something that’s cool in theory or in a demo to something that you have to own and want to use all the time.
Big companies with big ideas are backing VR and investing in its future, but what’s becoming clear is that virtual reality is going to have a very, very slow start as a consumer product, and may have trouble generating enough thrust for widespread liftoff until further advancements are made.