After decades of false promises, last week marked a moment when virtual reality began to set in.
A new headset from Google, big investments by Facebook-owned Oculus and this week’s release of Sony’s much-anticipated headset in stores worldwide are boosting the VR industry just as the holiday shopping season arrives.
“The progress we have seen across all the technology companies — Samsung, Google, HTC, Sony, Facebook — is mind boggling,” said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, in an email.
“I have seen more technological progress in the past two years than in the previous 15 combined in the VR space,” he said. “This holiday season I will be getting ‘VR’ on wish lists from relatives. That in and of itself is amazing.”
Although it’s too soon to tell how far the momentum will drive revenue, virtual reality companies hope consumers get hooked by the kind of eye-popping experiences expressed by these Twitter members: "Last night, I experienced VR for the first time ... and now I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s incredible,” tweetedStephanie Zuppo.
“I spent 15 minutes in VR for my first time today. Amazing, and half as nauseating as expected. Game changer #lateadopter,” tweeted Tyler Finck.
“It’s hard to not think that everybody would have that excitement after they try it,” said Chad Dezern, studio director at Insomniac Games, which is releasing an Oculus video game called “The Unspoken.”
“Of course, we don’t know, but we’re all hopeful at this point,” Dezern said.
Work on virtual reality technology, which envelops a viewer in a visual and audio experience that comes close to replicating a real-world experience, has been a decades-long journey, and it’s far from over. Juniper Research projects there will be a $50 billion worldwide market for VR hardware in 2021. Retailers, hotel managers and even the U.S. Navy, which allowed San Franciscans to virtually experience aiding special forces under enemy fire last week in a Fleet Week special, are exploring how to use the technology for marketing.
With its significant hardware and software requirements, VR proved too costly and difficult to reach a wide consumer audience until 2012, when startup Oculus VR raised $2.5 million in a Kickstarter campaign to develop a somewhat affordable head-mounted viewer. Today, Oculus’ headset, called the Rift, costs $600.
Just after Sony unveiled plans for its PlayStation VR viewer in 2014, Facebook bought Oculus for more than $2 billion. Following that, Google released a cheap Cardboard viewer that works with smartphones, Oculus teamed with Samsung to create the $99 Gear VR viewer, and smartphone maker HTC worked with software developer Valve to make the $800 HTC Vive headset.
The Rift and Vive both went on sale this year, while Samsung released an updated version of the Gear VR, which went on sale in late 2015.
Last week, Google announced the Daydream View, a $79 VR headset that operates on the tech giant’s own virtual reality platform and will work with some forthcoming Android phones.
Then at Oculus Connect 3, the company’s annual developers conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Oculus is working on a mid-range viewer that would be a cut above the Gear VR, but below the Rift. He also pledged another $250 million to support development of VR games and other content.
Oculus will ship hand controllers in December. Those controllers add to the realism of a VR game such as “The Unspoken,” which gives the illusion a wizard’s fireball-making hands are your own.
Meanwhile, Sony’s $399 PlayStation VR headset goes on sale Thursday, with more than 30 games available now and 20 more by year’s end. Sony is hoping that many of the 40 million owners of PlayStation 4 game consoles, required to run the headset, will step up to VR.
Gartner research director Brian Blau, who has closely followed the industry since 1988 as a college researcher, VR startup co-founder and analyst, has remained skeptical about the industry’s future because he’s witnessed many false starts.
But Blau called last week “a seminal moment in virtual reality.”
“Clearly, there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of interest,” he said. “It’s also clear there are challenges. But it’s going to be hard to look back at this week and say anything other than it was a significant transitionary week. This is the first time when people can go to the store or go online, buy VR, get it home and experience it.”
Blau’s onetime business partner, Tony Parisi, now co-founder of San Francisco VR mapping startup FormVR, said he’s been waiting 21 years for this moment and believes “there’s too much momentum now.”
If headsets like the PlayStation VR “have a less than stellar showing, it might be of concern, but there are just so many people investing in this, coming from so many industries,” Parisi said. “It’s not just tech pushing it.”
A decade ago, VR was something from a science fiction movie and nobody even heard about augmented reality,” he said. “People today all around the world have at least heard of them and many have experienced them. My hope is many more will.”Sean White, senior vice president of emerging technologies for Firefox browser creator Mozilla, said his first VR project came in 1993, when the hardware and software cost millions and was only available to a few people. Now, White is working on Mozilla’s open-source project to make virtual reality projects easily shareable using a Web browser.
In his Oculus Connect 3 keynote speech, Zuckerberg gave a nod to all of his competitors for advancing virtual reality.
“This is happening at a little faster rate than any of us had really expected,” he said. “We’re here to make virtual reality the next major computing platform.”
Stanford’s Bailenson wasn’t ready to go that far. “In terms of redefining all computing, I think we should take one step at a time,” he said. “What we know now is that VR — at consumer prices — provides a powerful and compelling experience. For a guy who has been studying this for decades, that is enough for me.”