To say VR had an eventful first year would be an understatement. Not only do we have three major headsets on shelves, contributing to almost $1bn (774m) worth of sales around the world, but we also have virtual reality films appearing at Sundance, VR surgical procedures, and HTC has even got its sights set on launching the world's first virtual reality satellite later this year as part of its $10m (7.7m) VR for Impact program.
Yet, while the excitement around VR has been positively infectious, a recent report from market research firm SuperData suggests that consumers have been somewhat slower to buy into this new technological frontier. According to the data, Oculus shipped 250,000 Rift units in 2016, HTC shipped 420,000 Vive units, and Sony 750,000 PlayStation VR units.
It's hard to find an appropriate yardstick for VR sales, but with PS4 pushing 60m units worldwide, it's certainly a very small subset of PlayStation gamers. Sales have admittedly been constrained by supply issues across all three headsets at varying times, but that's little comfort for content creators.
So VR hasn't been quite the commercial smash hit some were hoping. There's still much to prove, but it's early days and the potential is immense.
Speaking to the teams behind the Vive, Rift and PS VR, it's clear the first year of virtual reality has been a steep learning curve for everyone. Despite this, though, all three are optimistic about the future of VR, and are well aware of the hurdles they need to overcome to propel the industry forward.
We were really excited when we launched Vive a year ago, but were positively surprised at just how well it was received,” HTC's EMEA virtual reality program manager Graham Breen (pictured left) tells MCV.
Since then we've started to sell through a lot more partners and seen the world of VR grow. We've also seen the growth in content outside of gaming as businesses have used it to solve real problems in industries such as healthcare, education, design and entertainment.
"We've learnt a lot during the first year, it's been a learning curve, and we've been discovering new ways of everything, from creating content to giving people the chance to try Vive.”
Oculus' VP of content Jason Rubin (pictured below) echoes Breen's comments, saying it's been a strong first year” for the Rift despite a few teething problems.
VR is just getting started,” he enthuses. A year after launch and the Oculus store has over 400 Rift titles, more than 100 of which are compatible with Touch. That's a huge growth of quality content in an extremely short amount of time.
We understand that there are areas where we could have done better. Our early shipping issues were a clear miss, for example. But it's important to remember that we are a four-year-old company, with hardware and software on the market for only about a year.
"We've learned from our mistakes, and fixed the problems. It's also important to realise our wins and generosity. No hardware manufacturer in my memory has given away as much software for free as Oculus has in its first year.”
Of course, PlayStation VR has had less time on the market than its PC-powered rivals, but Sony's immersive technology group director Simon Benson (pictured below) is still very pleased with how the headset has been received so far.
[It's been] very positive,” he says. We were very optimistic about introducing our gamers to virtual reality, but it's only when you launch it that you know for sure.
"Creating a completely new type of gaming experience that involves wearing something on your head was a real challenge. When we see such fantastic user reviews, we know we have done a pretty good job in getting the important elements just right.
It is still very early days, but we have a better feel for the demand for VR gaming and so we are planning to increase production. This is a really positive sign for the future of VR gaming and I'm looking forward to seeing even more people getting their hands on their own PlayStation VR headset and entering this new world.”
PAYING THE PRICE
Convincing early adopters is one thing, but the cost of today's headsets still remains one of the biggest barriers to entry, something that Rubin's team at Oculus have been all too aware of ever since launch day.
I've always said there are two things we need to push VR forward: great content and lower prices,” he explains. With regards to price, we always knew we'd have to take a serious look at the price of our hardware by the end of the first year.
We've given hundreds of thousands of demos in retail stores and after every demo we give a survey. We overwhelmingly hear responses along the lines of ‘That was great, I loved it,' but people who don't buy Rift after a demo are held up by price. It's as simple as that.
So we did something about the price. That's been huge for the Rift. By dropping the price of Rift and Touch, we're aggressively pushing VR forward: more people will get into VR with lower prices and have more money to spend on the great VR content available, and that helps the entire ecosystem grow.
The Oculus Ready program [for PCs] has also made getting a VR-capable PC easier and more affordable than ever before, so the new all-in price for the best VR experience available is now within striking distance of PS VR. Combined with great VR content to keep consumers coming back and making sure they have amazing things to show their friends is the other piece to driving adoption. In the long run, we believe that the PC ecosystem will have the most interesting, compelling content and the most experimental and interesting hardware. If you love high-end VR, the PC is the place to be.”
At 499 (plus another 99 for a pair of Touch controllers), the Rift still has some way to go before it's a direct competitor to Sony's 349 PlayStation VR, but with Vive still priced at 759, it's now a much more attractive bundle for those seeking an immersive VR experience without the hassle of setting up a dedicated space. Breen, however, is unperturbed:
We don't plan on changing our strategy of delivering the best and most comprehensive VR product to both developers and consumers,” he states. Vive stands for the best in class VR experience and we firmly believe that it represents excellent value.”
Likewise, Benson believes PS VR's plug-in-and-play approach is still one of its major selling points despite the shrinking price gap.
[PS VR] is designed to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible,” he says. The price point is just one small factor of that objective. You also have to consider other points, such as the availability of the platform to connect the VR headset to – in our