- By Joel Hruska on October 28, 2015 at 4:04 pm
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When Oculus announced its Kickstarter campaign for the Rift VR headset, it probably didn’t realize just how excited consumers were going to be. The number of companies planning to launch VR headsets or related technologies has skyrocketed in recent years. Sony has VR plans for the PlayStation 4, Qualcomm claims VR capabilities are baked into its upcoming Snapdragon 820, and both AMD and Nvidia are planning marketing blitzes of their own. It’s surprising — and honestly, refreshing — to see a major analyst firm putting the brakes on expectations for the market, and projecting that VR faces a slow, steady build over the next four years rather than meteoric success.
IHS is projecting initial VR hardware sales at $ 1.1 billion in 2016, growing to 2.7 billion in 2020. The firm expects 64% of this revenue to flow to companies that focus on smartphone platforms. The drastic price difference between the Oculus Rift and the upcoming $ 99 Gear VR headset likely accounts for some of this as well. IHS notes that most spending on software will take place at the high-end of the market, which is expected to split between the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive. Total game-related VR sales for 2016 are expected to be $ 496 million.
“Conditions are more suited to virtual reality technology and content adoption than ever before,” IHS supply wrote, “It is neither a bubble nor the next big thing.”
Slow and steady wins the race
I’ve been impressed by VR technology every time I’ve had a chance to use it, which is why I’m glad to see an analyst firm issuing a realistic analysis of the technology’s near-term potential. As great as VR is, designing VR games requires developers to consider aspects of how the brain processes motion, movement, and the location of your body. This sense is called proprioception, and wearing a headset can interfere with it dramatically. This piece from Ars Technica reviewed some of the challenges when designing environments for VR. Certain kinds of motion are prone to triggering nausea in players. Stairs, for example, can be troublesome — when your brain sees “you” climbing stairs, it instinctively attempts to position you for doing so. Players end up leaning backwards to counteract nonexistent forces.
Some of these problems may be easy to fix; researchers have reported that simply adding a nose to VR first person games helps stabilize the view and reduce nausea. Either way, developers are going to have to change the kinds of content they develop for VR. And that’s a potential problem.
It helps to consider the fate of 3-D cinema and that technology’s sudden surge and waning strength. The early 3-D films that dominated the modern era — Polar Express and Avatar — were created specifically in that format and were designed to take advantage of it. Once studios realized that 3-D content was selling, they jumped to take advantage of it — mostly by pushing inferior, post-production 2D conversions, or by including only a limited amount of 3-D film (15-20 minutes of the movie). These efforts are often distinctly inferior, and the color palettes tend to be muted and muddy as a result. Slap on a $ 5-$ 10 surcharge for 3-D tickets, and consumers quickly realized that while they were paying a premium for a 3-D film, they often weren’t receiving an improved experience.
3-D and VR are very different technologies, but they both require content creators to design towards the specific capabilities of their respective platforms, while acknowledging and compensating for their differences. A huge flush of VR content might seem like a gaming best-case scenario, but I strongly suspect that many corporations would abandon principles of good design in their rush to pile on and make a quick buck.
The downside to this trend is that it could take several years for the market to truly catch on, and funding for AAA titles in VR conversions could be few and far between. Studios will likely start experimenting with content almost immediately, and there are some amazing games in development, but we don’t expect VR to dominate game sales out of the gate. It’ll be another 4-5 years (and probably another generation of console hardware) before we start to see the medium find its legs. But as far as getting things right and building a stable base for the concept, that’s the right way to do it.