The Virtual Arena: The End Of 2016 & The End Of VR’s Phase Four

Kevin Williams takes a retrospective glance at consumer VR through 2016.

We start 2017 with the final VRFocus column of 2016 from leading exponent of the out-of-home entertainment sector, Kevin Williams. In this column Williams takes a retrospective glance at the consumer virtual reality (VR( scene for a change, and observes what we should take from the coming New Year.

It was called the “Year of VR”, but 2016 proved more the starting gun for this latest attempt at mainstream adoption, and with it came a major downgrading of what could be achieved. And as it comes to an end, 2016 seems to be the period when the expectations of over four years ago, met reality, and that same hype filled expectations were managed.

Obviously, anyone has read my writing on the subject would expect me now to wax lyrical about the explosion of interest and investment in the Out-of-Home entertainment applications that saw success in 2016. You would expect me to go on about The VOID’s first successful installation with Ghostbusters: Dimension, or the appearance of Zero Latency as an actual attraction – or look at the 20-odd roller coasters across the globe that are running with VR Coaster technology (see my recent coverage on major new launches from the attraction show floor).

But for this end of year summations of the year that was heralded as the year of the technology I want to just briefly look at what was the reality of the consumer VR hype-train as it ran into the buffers this year.

Mobile VR Becomes “A Thing”

Once called “muddying the water”, regarding defining what is VR, the successful sales of mobile VR through platforms like the Samsung Gear VR (powered by Oculus) has been the one aspect that can be pointed too towards the reality of a mainstream adoption of VR. The success in achieving this was obviously impacted by the equal success of the radically different approach of Google Cardboard VR platform, but we have seen mobile VR (employing smartphone immersive delivery) become a thing.

The reality is that with Google Daydream, and all the subsequent investment from the likes of Windows 10 into this sector, mobile VR will grow if not blossom in the direction that many others expected. The possibility is that rather than a virtual reality experience, the limitations of current tech will see mobile VR grow into a “virtual viewer” niches. A suitable foundation for the inevitable augmented reality (AR) / VR hybrid that is perceived from Mixed Reality investigations.

Daydream-View-Colours

But it is the feud that was ignited between defining what is “true VR” and what is “good enough VR” that has dealt the most damage to the credibility of those that promoted VR so ardently. The need to backtrack on the hyperbole of what can and cannot be achieved with VR-films (resembling more 360° video), and the plain truth that there are serious limitations to what can be achieved via a smartphone to represent virtual environments – much of the momentum has been tempered with the growth in interest in this approach to immersion.

High-end VR Emerges

Speaking personally as one that has survived through the last two phases of VR adoption, it became obvious that the hyperbole from some that VR would be established as a mainstream tool this year spoke to a naive and reckless abandonment of sense. And that some were starting to feed off their own hype. The echo chambers of the popular forums reverberating to those attempting to defend the indefensible – faced with a reality that they could not ignore, but chose to deny.

The reality is that the consumer mainstream needs more than a novel gimmick to be encouraged to pony up over $1,000 to be immersed!

For the loyal fan-base and supporters of VR the reality of their situation, and the ever-increasing price point was only compounded by a landgrab for recognition, with VR content offer a less than expected level of engagement, and in many cases charging premium pricing for a less than premium duration of engagement. 2016 was the point where the curtain was pulled asunder, and no amount of “wait and see” promises could be proffered – we saw what PC based VR could deliver.

Those that banked on a seated experience using a gamepad found their corner, but most of the scene turned to “room-scale” VR, and after a fractured launch, Oculus had to follow suit with HTC to create a tracked movement environment. We now see TOUCH launched onto the sector to stand alongside ViVE’s full offering near equal in price – no more waiting, the audience can now vote with their check books!

The Consoles are Coming

An obvious success story, Sony’s appearance in the VR scene via previous investment in head-mounted viewing technology (from the Glasstron of the 90’s or the HMZ of the 00’s) saw a near seamless launch. Showing others how it is done when launching hardware into the consumer sector – only hindered by the albatross of the Move controller system.

But we now face the reality that the accumulated data and speculation about how big and far reaching this phase of VR would be on the mainstream has been seriously over estimated, seeming to emulate the problems that foundered VR some twenty years ago, to the day. Though going in the whole unreported alongside the reporting of a major shortfall in the expected PSVR sales, is that of the returns!

PlayStation VR Asian Prices

The VR scene enthrals, but seems not to be holding the interest at this stage, the rebound of the hyperbole is now being superseded by the reality of applications. The lack of the “killer game” and the complication of utilization has proven that much of the promises of what could be achieved by the promised hardware launches of 2016 have fallen far short of their expectations.

The level of technical engagement on the PC VR platforms, is matched by a complication of instalment on the console VR approach – many users dismissive of having to dedicated space and time to set-up to experience a level of “presence” that fall far short of that which was promised. But with that said, the level of interest from the faithful is still strong and investment has been made to keep the torch burning for VR.

Towards 2017

The next year will continue to see a realization of the reality of what is VR for the consumer buyer. There is expected to be a continued investment as more game titles with strong investment supersede the aspirational indie offerings that once fuelled the hype that surround the technology start-up.

There will also be some pivotal moments in the sector – at least three key game titles have been slated for greatness in this sector. The appearance of Rock Band VR has been used as a proof of commitment towards dedicated AAA titles migration into the VR experience this go around, and if the game under performs (for whatever reason) this could chart the success or failure of certain business plans.

We will also get to see the real interest and level of investment from newcomers to the scene – the showcase of CES 2017 will be a cornucopia of new VR investment, with the reality of the Daydream line-up and new surprise mobile VR and high-end VR platforms. The level of surprise will also be tempered against the reality of the business. Will 2017 show us more of a long future for the current phase of interest, or a short burn?

Likewise, several of those individuals that proffered the original hyperbole of what the VR future would represent will now have to move on. Either due to the usual churn of executive positions in the tech-business, or due to their positions becoming untenable. Likewise, we will see (as seen twenty years ago,) a reality check between what investors hoped to achieve, and what can be done with the business that emerges. As well as the possibility of AR’s ascendance to steel the limelight!

Many investors, both private and through Kickstarter, have been greatly surprised by the reality of the VR business, and how they are now being told that it is a “fifteen to twenty year” slog to actual market penetration. That many of those invested for quick return is obvious, and faced with a new business trajectory may not want to go the course – inevitably we will see some fall by the wayside.

And finally, to my constant mantra. Is 2017 the year that immersive entertainment moves from a living room (couch) occupation and embrace an Out-of-Home entertainment horizon. Already we are seeing great success in application of immersive entertainment (not just VR, but digital projection and AR) in amusement and attraction venues.

The appearance of The VOID and Zero Latency populated facilities has proven that high-end technology far beyond consumer check-books has strong appeal to an audience that expected more from the consumer offering of VR, and now see that dedicated space, investment and time is needed to even touch the surface of what this technology must offer to succeed.

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