Mega VR roundup: Lots happening in the virtual and real worlds
New products, cheaper kit and company tie-ins
Every year for the past ten years has been the one when virtual reality will finally break out.
Based on the pace and number of recent announcements, it looks as though that time has finally come – well, will soon come. Probably in 2018, maybe.
Earlier this month, HTC matched a $200 price cut in its high-end Vive system to one announced by Oculus and its Rift headset in July. Now the Vive costs $599, the Rift $399. The companies claimed the price reduction was a way to grow their "community," but commentary immediately focused on whether the companies were struggling to hit their sales targets.
Both were likely true, as not only Dell but also Lenovo announced they were jumping into the VR headset space. The Dell Visor was announced in time for the IFA annual electronics show in Berlin and would you believe it? It was priced at $399.
These new headsets represent the push by Microsoft into the VR space – they run Windows 10 and use the technology behind Microsoft's own HoloLens – and join others from Acer and HP.
Things are hotting up and Microsoft has clearly decided that doing what it does best – building an operating system to act as a foundation for a larger market – is the way to go. Whether the more Apple approach of full control espoused by Oculus is going to work in VR, we will have to wait and see.
What is noticeable, however, is the sudden buzz around AR – augmented reality – and the dampening of excitement around VR. Videos of people playing around with AR software kits and posting them online has been a huge part of that.
Such videos showing the real world with virtual elements added make this new technology more immediately apparent to consumers – far more than the 2D images captured from inside a VR headset followed with the age-old refrain "you really have to see it with a headset on to appreciate it."
Plus, of course, the sheer number and variety of these sorts of videos is fuelling interest.
All is not yet lost, however. The determined efforts by high-end headsets to escape their biggest flaw – the need to keep them connected by wires to a computer – is starting to pay off.
The Vive's wireless streaming add-on, TPCast, has been made available for pre-order this week. It's not cheap. In fact, it's downright expensive at €349/$415. But it should be available this year and claims to give five hours of play time. Early reviews say that it works without noticeable lag – the critical measure.
And this is also where the Rift and Vive still have time to save themselves: they exist, they have games and they currently offer a better experience to the new wave of headsets.
Our intrepid reporter at the IFA this week gave the Windows 10 mixed reality experience a distinctly mixed response.
Meanwhile, there is the other critical section of the market: VR headsets that hold mobile phones rather than a dedicated built-in screen.
This week LG announced its new flagship smartphone – the LG V30 – and it supports Google's effort in the VR world, Daydream. Not to mention its new ARCore toolkit. Compatibility with Google's VR vision is growing in the mobile world and now phones from Google, Huawei, LG, Motorola, Samsung and ZTE all work with its system.
How the split between phone-based system and dedicated headsets will break down is anyone's guess. The vast majority of people will get a smartphone before they get a VR headset – how good that smartphone experience is may well dictate how many people go for a full VR setup.
And then of course, adding to the mix is Sony's PlayStation system and its VR setup, which has already grabbed a large chunk of the gaming market simply because large numbers of people already have the hardware necessary and just need the compatible system.
And just in case that wasn't enough flux, later this month Apple is going to announce a new iPhone and the expectation is that the company will go big on its own augmented reality setup.
Oh, and this week it was revealed that Nintendo's Switch games console has VR capabilities written into its source code.
Things are moving and they are moving fast. And just as with the headsets themselves, it is causing a degree of blurring, judder and motion sickness. But it's still fun. ®