The VR Era has officially begun now that Samsung released the consumer version of their Gear VR headset, which is getting a lot of media coverage and good reviews. Combining that with the coverage about the New York Times’ Google Cardboard give-away it’s clear that Virtual Reality has moved beyond the radar of insiders into the general public.
So Samsung and Google are already competing to become the VR brand of 2015. But it’s almost 2016—which will see the second wave of VR headsets come to market: Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC & Valve’s Vive and Sony’s Playstation VR, which was previously code-named Project Morpheus.
First of all, it’s perfect that Gear VR and Cardboard are already going mainstream. It will give early adopters their first VR experience, let them spread the word—and want more. More in a way I think Mobile VR can’t deliver: VR content that goes beyond the ability to look around in 360° videos (which I wrote about earlier) and beyond games with Playstation 2-level graphics—more immersive content that actually makes people feel they’re there.
For this you need 3 things Mobile VR won’t be able to deliver any time soon:
- The ability to move around
- The ability to naturally interact with the virtual environment
- Hardware that can handle the above with outstanding audiovisual performance
So when the first-time VR Experience wears off in a few months, people that want more can choose between headsets from Oculus, HTC or Sony. None of them have a concrete price and release date at this moment, but I guess we can assume they will all be widely available after the summer of 2016 (HTCsaid it will release the Vive in 2015, but only in limited quantities) and certainly before next year’s holiday season—that’s probably when the actual VR War will be fought.
As the title of this post suggests, I’m predicting that Sony will win that war with Playstation VR. This is why:
1. The required hardware is relatively affordable and many people already own half of it
Both the Rift and Vive need to be hooked up to a monstrously fast gaming PC that very few people currently own. And according to research by gaming company Valve—co-developer of the Vive—even gamers aren’t planning to upgrade their PCs for VR. If you don’t have such a PC at all, you’ll need to invest in a system that meets the minimum requirements. The Nvidia GTX 970 graphics card recommended by Oculus costs around €340 on its own, and the Vive is rumoured to require an even faster—€550-costing—GTX 980 card. Combine that the fact that Oculus has already hinted that the Rift will costs more than $350 and you need to shell out at least €1500 to experience PC-based Virtual Reality in 2016.
Playstation VR requires a Playstation 4 game console that 25 million (update: 30.2 million) people already own and 37 million people areexpected to own in the first half of 2016. You can buy a PS4 for €350, which will last many years without ever needing a hardware upgrade. Sony said that the Playstation VR headset will cost around the same as a new console. So that could mean you’re done for €700. In comparison: this is about €120 more than buying a Gear VR plus the cheapest required Galaxy S6 smartphone.
2. Sony already has a well-developed motion controller on the market
One crucial thing Mobile VR lacks is input devices. Sure, both Cardboard and Gear VR have some control on the headset itself, but this kind of interaction won’t go far beyond that of a View-Master. And yes, you can connect a Bluetooth controller to a smartphone to controle some VR games. But very few people own bluetooth gamepads so not a lot of content will be developed specifically for this type of input device.
Oculus has a similar problem: The Rift will initially be released with an Xbox One controller. The Oculus Touch motion controller will be released later. That means the first wave of content will be developed to be used with a controller that will only work for certain—existing—types of games.
The HTC Vive has had two motion controllers from day one, so most content will probably use this kind of input that allows for more natural exploration of virtual environments. But to get the Vive system to work, you must install the so-called Lighthouse system that requires placing several laser sensors on the walls or a room. I’m sure the amount of room-scale freedom this delivers will appeal to some, but it reminds me of the Dolby Surround speaker systems that required you to completely re-wire your living room—do people still have those?
The motion controllers Sony will use for Playstation VR—called Move—have been on the market since 2009 when they were mainly used to play Wii-like (dance) games on the Playstation 3. A depth-sensing camera is used to track both the VR headset and the Move controllers. I admit that the design of the move controller’s isn’t very sexy by today’s standards, but hey… you won’t be able to see them anyway and I guess Sony will bundle at least one Move controller with the Playstation VR headset (and probably a game as well).
3. Playstation VR will be plug and play
What I like about the Samsung Gear VR system is it’s ease of use. Sure, it only works with a few Samsung Galaxy phones, but those are prepared for the Gear VR to make the setup process as simple as clicking the phone into the headset and follow the simple, spoken instructions. And while Cardboard works on a lot of phones—including iPhones—the official Cardboard app does a good job of on-boarding first-timers into VR.
Although I’m sure that Oculus will make setting up the consumer version of the Rift a lot easier than the developer kits due to it’s tight integration with Windows 10, PC gaming in general still requires more technical knowledge than gaming on mobile or consoles. A glance at the HTC Vive’s installation manual does also indicate the complexity of a setup like this.
And then there’s Playstation VR sitting comfortably in the middle between dead-easy mobile VR and complex PC-based VR. Gaming consoles are user friendly by design and I expect the Playstation VR headset to be noting short of plug & play. No fiddling with drivers or fine-tuning quality settings to match your hardware set-up—just update your Playstation 4’s software to the latest version and plug everything in.
4. Playstation VR is a closed hardware-software platform
I read a lot of criticism towards Samsung making the Gear VR work exclusively with it’s latest Galaxy flagship smartphones. Sure, there is some marketing going on there, but that part also keeps the headset price low. What’s more important is the fact that developers of VR content know the hardware that they’re developing for and can do thorough testing to ensure their software runs smoothly on those few phones. This detail is especially important for VR, because at this moment all quality VR content is pushing the limits of current hardware to deliver the smooth—latency-free—experience that VR needs to prevent nausea and other discomforts.
Yes, Oculus and HTC have recommended specifications for hardware components of PCs—there are even Oculus-ready PCs—but they’re still all different. For example, those Nvdia Geforce graphics cards can be made by all kinds of manufacturers and will be plugged into different kinds of motherboards. No problem for those that know what they’re doing and how to fix things when performance drops after a seemingly innocent software update, but for others this can lead to a sub-par VR experience.
Like Samsung, Sony delivers both the hardware, software and curated content platform—but without the limitations of mobile VR. This benefits consumers because it ensures all content works seamlessly and it benefits developers because they just have to ensure it does on a single system. This saves a lot of time—and money—which is especially important for VR, since developing for a new medium like this is risky to begin with.
It’s good to point out that developing for Playstation does come at a price since developers have to buy a licence and a development machine to be able to publish content for the console. So it’s a closed ecosystem and you’ll have to buy Playstation VR content on a disc or download it from the Playstation Store. Samsung’s Gear VR platform is also a closed ecosystem. This is the opposite of Google Cardboard, which even open-sourced their viewer so it can be produced by anyone. The Oculus Rift ecosystem is also said to remain open and not apply “console tactics”.
I’ll be honest: I’m a die-hard Android user because of it’s openness and while experimenting with VR development, I also found it a lot easier to publish stuff for Google Cardboard on Android than on iOS, because of Apple’s closed ecosystem. But when it comes to developing apps for money, closed systems are more lucrative for developers. The revenue gap between iOS and Android app sales is even widening. So Samsung actually did a great job of making a closed ecosystem within Android for Gear VR.
Sony has a great track record of creating quality first-party content and attracting both big publishers and indie developers to it’s monitizablePlaystation platform. Making quality content simply is expensive—and VR needs quality content to become a success. And I’m talking about interactive 3D content here—not 360° video.
5. Sony knows how to manufacture and sell consumer-grade electronics
Sure, HTC is a phone manufacturer so they know how to build hardware, but they’re not very good at actually selling them, lately. Facebook has enough cash to figure something out for the Rift, but that doesn’t buy thedecades of experience Sony has with manufacturing consumer electronics and managing supply chains. Expect Playstation VR demo installations in many retail locations, like electronics warehouses and toy stores and possibly also in cinema lounges. These kind of try-before-you-buy setups are important for a new technology like VR.
And then there’s marketing. Samsung is currently doing a great job of marketing VR to consumers. Sony has already shown how they will advertise VR and as someone that has been working in motion design and marketing for over 10 years I really like that Iron-Manian style that shows the emotions of the users under the headset (hence the header image).
Sony knows how to sell Playstation 4—they know this so well that it’s very unlikely Microsoft’s Xbox One will ever catch up in terms of sales. If they do price the headset right, nothing will stop them in getting far ahead of Oculus and HTC.
So that’s it. 5 reasons why I think Sony will win the VR War in 2016.
But there’s one more thing…
6. Playstation VR is social by design
This one might actually be the most important one for the adoption andacceptance of Virtual Reality. The one thing I hear back from non-insiders about VR is their fear that it will make us even more socially detached. The times when the happy family was sitting on the couch watching TV togetherare long gone. Entertainment consumption has already become a more individual experience. The happy family might still be sitting on that couch, but each member is doing something different entirely. Maybe one is watching regular broadcast TV while another is watching Netflix on a tablet and yet another is playing Angry Birds on a smartphone.
So I do get the fear of the next step being one or more family members putting on a VR headset and completely removing themselves from reality. It’s actually what happened to people in the same room as me when they put up the Oculus Rift DK2 or Gear VR Innovator’s Edition… Except when playing Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes on the latter because it forces interaction between multiple people—one wearing the Gear VR headset while getting bomb-defusal instructions from another person checking out schematics on another smartphone. The developer of this game made it a social experience.
Playstation VR is social by design and this goes beyond the ability to mirror the headset’s screen on the TV. Sony is actually envisioning something calledasymmetrical multiplayer experiences that will show the person wearing the headset one thing—often in first-person perspective—while a non-VR player sees something different on the TV. For example, the player with the VR headset can be a scuba diver, while the other player can see a sonar map of the ocean on the TV screen and give the VR-player voice commands, as if he’s on a ship. Imagine this concept for a future version of Grand Theft Auto…
Sure, it’s technically possible to pull of something similar on Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but those will be hooked up to that beast of a PC somewhere hidden under a desk. Playstation VR will be in the center of the most social area of our homes—the living room.
Let’s just hope Sony will release a wireless version in 2017.