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VR vs. CES 2016 – Unpacking VR’s Biggest Week Yet

The last three months of 2015 were painful. Bar a few new videogame announcements, Oculus VR had already said all it was going to say about the launch of the Oculus Rift at its developer conference in September, while fans tortured themselves as they speculated over the situation with the then-MIA HTC Vive, which was delayed into 2016 a few days after many had expected it to actually launch albeit in a limited fashion. But the agonising wait for news on both of these HMDs paid off in spades last week as the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) got underway.

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Both Oculus VR and HTC prepared fans ahead of time for a big show. The latter teased the reveal of a ‘big breakthrough’ at the event while the former gave a 48 hour warning for the launch of pre-orders as it opened its doors on 6th January.

Hats off to Oculus VR for its approach here. On the Monday, that pre-order warning was launched, getting people talking about the Oculus Rift once more. But on Tuesday it also made the enormously generous gesture of offering a free unit to everyone that pledged enough money to purchase the device’s first development kit (DK1) during 2012’s historic Kickstarter campaign. This was a great way of generating positive buzz around the kit but the more ingenious move was announcing it at exactly the same time HTC revealed its second development kit, the Vive Pre.

Oculus VR and HTC may speak of an overall togetherness in launching VR to the public, but there’s no denying that the Oculus Rift creator stole a good deal of thunder from its main rival here. That’s not to say the Vive Pre underwhelmed; an improved chaperone system and redesigned form factor gained the kit several ‘Best of’ awards towards the end of the week, but Oculus VR managed to keep the bulk of attention squarely focused on its HMD throughout the show.

Admittedly not all of that attention was positive. When pre-orders finally did open the $599 USD price tag proved to be a big shock. It was certainly understandable; previously messaging for Oculus VR had suggested something much lower, and creator Palmer Luckey even apologised for the handling of that messaging later on in the week. Still, it hasn’t stopped the pre-orders from performing well, having already been backed up from its original 28th March ship date all the way to June 2016, and extensive explanations for Oculus VR have helped many come to terms with the costly tag.

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Adding to the rivalry, meanwhile, HTC also gained an impressive amount of ground on the show floor, appearing at the booths of several third-party partners much in the same way you would have seen the Oculus Rift DK1, DK2 and Crescent Bay units show up at previous events. This helped give the HMD the image of being just as crucial to the VR industry as its competitor and showed encouraging signs of adoption throughout the industry. There’s still a lot to learn about the HTC Vive, but the company did enough at this event to convince some to hold off on pre-ordering the Oculus Rift for now.

CES wasn’t without disappointment, though. Despite showcasing the device at the IFA electronics show in Berlin last year, Sony made no mention of its PlayStation VR HMD at its press conference. The kit featured prominently in promotional materials for the event, leading some to believe that a price and release date could finally be revealed, but no such information was given. With the H1 2016 release window narrowing, Sony is running out of opportunities to share such info. Perhaps the 2016 Game Developers Conference (GDC) will reveal all, if not an independent event.

Gear VR, too, had a disappointing showing. With the kit just released and Samsung hosting its own press conference, we had hoped to see more reasons to buy the device. Instead all fans got were quick glimpses of a concept motion controller.

Even with these let downs, CES managed to be the biggest week for VR next. With GDC 2016 taking place from 14th – 18th March, just days ahead of the Oculus Rift’s launch, it remains to be seen if last week can be topped.