There are plenty of events throughout the year for virtual reality (VR) fans to look forward to, but the Game Developers Conference (GDC) is always a highlight. Past years have seen some big announcements from Oculus VR and Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) but 2015’s iteration will no doubt be remembered as a landmark for the technology. Pre-existing head-mounted displays (HMD) saw pivotal updates while important new players were introduced to the field. Perhaps the most telling sign of just how significant the event proved to be is the fact that Oculus VR, the company largely associated with bringing about VR’s revival, had its leadership seriously challenged.
Arguably the biggest announcements were made before the week had even started. As expected, Samsung’s Mobile World Conference (MWC) press conference revealed a new iteration of the Oculus VR co-developed Gear VR, now running with the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge smartphones. Normally this news would have been talked about and obsessed over by the VR community for days to come, but it had already been overshadowed by a far bigger announcement. HTC’s press conference, which took place just hours before Samsung’s, gave way to the reveal of the Vive HMD, made in partnership with Half-Life developer Valve.
The news caught just about everybody off-guard. A Valve announcement was expected at GDC with a ‘prominent hardware manufacturer’ also involved, but few had guessed it would be HTC. Even more surprising was the bold claim that the kit would see a consumer release for holiday 2015, likely marking it as the first major HMD release outside of Gear VR and offering the first real glimpse of when true consumer VR will finally arrive, over three years on from Oculus VR’s historic Kickstarter campaign.
The implications of the announcement extend far beyond a release window, though. Vive uses Valve’s Steam VR concept, which utilises a pair of ‘base stations’ that allow for user tracking in an area of up to 15 feet by 15 feet, something that’s unseen in other consumer VR HMDs so far. Crucially, if Oculus VR’s consumer Oculus Rift (CV1) remains a strictly ‘seated experience’, then it could already be outdated in some respects. It will be interesting to see if Vive causes the Facebook-owned company improve upon CV1 far beyond what it had originally planned to release.
There’s also the fact that Steam VR isn’t limited to the Vive itself and will come to other, unannounced HMDs. One may wonder just how many VR HMDs the market can hold before saturation sets in, but, at least with Steam VR backing many of them, quality control will become less of a concern.
Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) also cemented its position in the VR race with an impressive new version of Project Morpheus. The company decided to keep things quieter than last year’s reveal, with a small event and no public show floor access. Some might think of that as a puzzling move but it’s arguably worked in the company’s favour. Buzz about Project Morpheus’ new display, which boasts a 120Hz refresh rate, has seemingly proved that the company is taking VR seriously, and will be releasing a kit that’s worthy of its competitors, if somewhat excused of matching them thanks to the console it’s connected to.
With both SCE and Valve making such a splash, it was admittedly surprising to see Oculus VR hold a much quieter GDC than in years past, though it may have been for the best. The company’s ‘big announcement’, if there was one, was that it would be releasing the next iteration of its Gear VR smartphone-based HMD as a full consumer product. Note that this doesn’t refer to the aforementioned Gear VR for S6 but the successor to the original device, expected to be revealed later this year. It was something of an awkward announcement made by the company’s John Carmack in an otherwise-stellar discussion on ‘The Dawn of Mobile VR’. It felt a little forced in the face of the Vive news and suggested that fans will have to grit their teeth and keep waiting on Oculus Rift news while Gear VR takes 2015. That said, Oculus VR doesn’t need an event like GDC to announce the big CV1 news, and leaving it for a week in which other companies aren’t fighting for headlines is likely a wise choice on its part.
There are two stories to take away from GDC 2015. The first is the arrival of Steam VR and what it means for Oculus VR. The latter’s staff have been praising Valve’s tech throughout the week, but this is undoubtedly the first serious challenge to the company’s foothold with the technology. Oculus VR will sure to hit back hard when it finally does have news to share, but just how far is it willing to go with CV1 in order to best its new rival?
Finally, while specific dates are yet to be revealed, the tease of launch windows for Vive and Project Morpheus as well as the tease of a ‘full consumer’ Gear VR promise that the arrival of these kits for more than just enthusiasts and developers is finally nearing. The Oculus Rift may still be far off but GDC 2015 has proved that this is the year of VR regardless.