By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
If this isn't the year that virtual reality hardware makes it into the consumer market it won't be for a lack of options. In fact if there's anything that's becoming obvious as the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco ramps up is that there just might be too many cooks in the virtual kitchen.
First let's take a quick look at all the players in the space:
The Current Cast
- Oculus VR: owned by Facebook, leader of the pack for the past two years.
- Sony: stepped into the limelight with Project Morpheus at last year's GDC.
- Samsung: partnered with Oculus to release the Gear VR, the first major commercially available mobile VR device.
- Microsoft: announced its HoloLens program last month, an AR push.
- Magic Leap: has built up major hype for its still mysterious take on AR and took a half-billion in financing in a Google-led round recently.
- Valve/HTC: the just-announced Vive is a partnership of the leading PC gaming platform holder with the mobile hardware maker.
- GameFace Labs: smaller outfit focused on mobile VR.
- Razer: popular gaming hardware maker that has released its own spec for head mounted displays called Open-Source Virtual Reality.
- Google: running the Cardboard program over at Android which has third party support, recently announced a partnership with Mattel to make ViewMaster branded mobile VR adaptors for Android devices. Also supporting Vive.
- Apple: because they'll need to do something if the Watch is a dud, and they've got patents on file.
My first question: What the hell is Google doing? They seem to be all over the map on this one... but I guess that's par for the course from the company that brought us mobile fragmentation. They're betting on so many horses you'd think they were trying to own the whole track... and maybe they are.
Magic Leap, one of their horses, is more of an AR play which puts them into direct competition with Microsoft's HoloLens. But let's not be coy here: AR and VR is going to converge into one device, because no one is going to want to own a full Rock Band kit worth of alt-reality peripherals. (Unless it makes you feel like you can fly, in which case: up, up, and away!)
The buzz from the HTC/Valve team-up is huge. This isn't just because they've been showing the kit behind closed doors all week ahead of the press embargoes that lifted today. It's because Valve has been grinding on these programs in private for years now, and even members of Oculus VR's exec team have been impressed with previous iterations of Valve's hardware.
On top of that, the word is that Valve's VR controller scheme is brilliant. Oculus hasn't cracked that nut yet. However, Valve didn't exactly reboot the universe with last year's Steam Controller for PC gaming. If anything, that initiative seemed to have run out of... yeah... I'll just let that one go.
HTC and Valve have hung a release date of Fall for the Vive, which puts an emphasis on a more embodied experience. The "holodeck" word has been thrown about a lot in the write-ups that hit today. There's a catch, however: you still have to be tethered to a computer.
Now, I've used a VR rig that allowed me to walk around while being tethered. Someone had to hold on to the cable to make sure I didn't trip over it. There's no way in hell that's a viable mainstream commercial product. So either the Vive is going to go through a rapid evolution in the months ahead or Valve and HTC are going to unleash a product only the hardcore gaming audience will love.
Given the ad campaign they've worked up and the content partners they've announced (HBO and Lionsgate) that can't be the only demographic they have their eyes on.
All this is exciting on one level, but from a mainstream adoption point of view all this hardware is a nightmare. There's little in the way of killer apps that have been announced on any platform so far. The few that seem to have emerged in the early going -- like Eve: Valkrie -- are already headed towards a platform agnostic status.
What we could wind up with is a fair number of PC games that have VR support turned on as part of their release, but fewer experiences that are designed from the ground up for the new platforms. If we wind up with four or more serious contenders by the holiday season it's easy to imagine the general public just sitting on their wallets until a leader emerges... and developers losing their shirts after making bad bets.
So, what I'm looking for out of this week's GDC news, and in the months we have between now and the Electronics Entertainment Expo, is two or three platform exclusive pieces of content. They could be games. They could be films. Whatever they are they need to be exclusive, and thus make the case for why I should strap one mobile phone screen to my face over all the others.
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.