The VR console war is finally upon us, and this time around, the hype looks to yield substantially more interesting results than Nintendo’s Virtual Boy (although what 90s kid doesn’t cherish the memory of pressing their face against the grimy, germ-ridden demo model at Sears, and immediately losing interest in favor of the technological marvel that was Donkey Kong Country?). We’ve been through numerous flopped omg-VR-is-the-next-big-thing-omg cycles over the years, whose overpromises lead to headache-inducing let-downs, but this time around, market research predicts a hardy $5 billion for the industry in 2016.
Console ‘war’ may be the wrong term here; so far it resembles something more of a stampede. Developers are stumbling over themselves to create content that will allow X company to corner the market first, which is unfortunate – an experience as visceral (and potentially brain damaging) as plugging all your sensory organs into an alternate reality should probably be built with a bit more patience and care. Brain aneurysms aside, there sure is plenty to be excited about.
In case you haven’t kept up, the system enjoying the most press thus far would be the Oculus Rift, via its kickstarter campaign promising a dev kit to anybody pledging over $300, followed by John Carmack’s involvement, and then Facebook’s acquisition. Along with all that publicity, there is likely no greater endorsement of the OR’s immersive capabilities than this glorious viral video from 2014:
Pity that the $350 price point turned out to be bunk. Zuck’s stock and prestige enjoyed a boost and Oculus’ founders figured that early cash-out is better than no cash-out, but the takeover in 2014 would prove to be a pulled rug for developers and fans alike; such an accessible price might have led to mass adoption, or at least a realistic shot. Instead, the headset alone will costs roughly twice what fans were expecting, and that’s to say nothing of the high end processor, RAM, graphics card, and flux capacitor required to run these things.
So next in line is the HTC Vive, which, along with more honest price announcements, has secured the allegiance of many hardcore PC gaming fans by partnering with Valve and their whole outfit. 70 sensors, 90 Hz refresh rate, and lowered latency (so you don’t get violently ill), and pricing in at $799 (and, well, the price of the super badass high-end PC you presumably already have), with Valve’s trademark innovation for game design, not to mention the maybe sorta rumored theoretically potentially possible possibility of gaming fanboy unicorn Half Life 3, which would be a spectacular tear-jerking system seller if ever there was one, there ought to be plenty to drool over.
In addition to the remote possibility of a certain bespectacled crowbar-wielding engineer’s return, HTC has also announced its ViveX Accelerator program, a $100 million fund that will be used to invest in promising VR companies. On top of that, a new homebrew patch apparently makes Rift games playable on Vive. That was quick.
The system also appears to be going wireless, according to this demo. Scalable Graphics, a company from France, has assembled a kit that is worn on a bandoleer, transmitting data via 5GHz wifi network. The latency is reportedly indistinguishable from the wired setting. The haphazard, cluttered appearance and short battery life need some tweaking, but it shows promise in overcoming one of the Vive’s biggest hurdles.
But the major player poised to truly corner the market may just be Sony, whose PlayStation VR will cost gamers a relatively trifle $399 (which is only slightly higher than the PS4 required to run it, which costs a fraction of the typical high-end gaming PC required for the OR and Vive) and is set to arrive this October, in time for Christmas. While it’s the most low-spec of the big three main headsets (twin FullHD 1080p OLED rather than Vive and Rift’s 1080×1200 pixel-per-eye), it does boast a higher refresh rate of 120Hz, 50 launch titles, and a possible PC launch at a later date.
Cheaper still is the Samsung-only smartphone based Gear VR. For a rather low cost of $100 (not to mention possibly 50% off, with your purchase of a Galaxy S7), Samsung’s strategy of getting a headstart on the casual market seems to be paying off, as apparently one million phones used a Gear VR last month, according to Oculus.
Regardless of who comes out on top, it appears that plugging our consciousness into the matrix is upon us, and that soon we’ll finally FINALLY get to leave our normal boring lives behind. Who will come out on top? Who knows. A year from now, everything will probably look quite different; more games available, Rift will have some exclusives, glitches and customer service issues and aneurysm-causing defects will alter the playing field; consumers may do well to wait for the stampede to settle before committing this kind of money to anything.
Looking to try it out? Best Buy should have demo stands for GearVR and Rift. Also check meetup.com to find a VR meetup near you.