The future of VR

High-end virtual reality is about to hit retailers with the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. Jonathan Easton asks the channel how the technology will fare commercially and what’s next for this cutting-edge user experience.

At the time of going to print, the Oculus Rift is on the verge of a wide retail release. 

Similarly, we are just a few weeks away from the launch of the PlayStation VR.

These two devices are the first experience that many shoppers will have of virtual reality (VR) outside of the confines of a smartphone and will be the first true test of the technology’s commercial viability. We are on the verge of a barrage of devices being released over the next few years. With Asus, Intel, Alcatel and Razer all preparing their own headsets. The floodgates are about to open.

But will too much choice confuse – and ultimately put off – consumers?

“Yes I do think that if we get lots of different vendors in what is only an emerging market that it will confuse consumers,” says Black Bear Computing managing director (MD) Richard Alford. 

“Already people are struggling with the difference of Vive and Oculus, they offer quite different experiences and the games developers are in some case writing for one or the other not both.

“Adding more headsets can only increase the level of complexity in development.”

While that is one dissenting voice, the channel is generally more positive about the multiple vendors who are active in the VR space.

Gekko MD Dan Todaro believes that an abundance of products won’t prove to be a problem for consumers: “The market remains in its infancy and too early in its lifecycle to run the risk of becoming saturated.”

Likewise, Entatech’s PC components and gaming business manager Adam Whitworth argues that consumers having more options is a healthy state for the market to be in: “Ultimately more competition in the market can only be a good thing to improve the technology and make it more accessible to the masses.”

 “Competition in the market will improve the technology and make it more accessible to the masses.” 
Dan Todaro, Gekko

Accessibility is currently a point of contention across the channel for multiple reasons. 

Firstly, high-end VR devices are incredibly expensive to get up and running for average consumers. 

Whitworth says: “It is unlikely we will see a huge surge of households making purchases into high-end VR in the short term. Although AMD and NVIDIA have released graphics cards to make VR more affordable, while the HMDs remain high, it will ultimately hold sales back.” 

He also states, however, that consumers won’t entirely be turned away by the cost of entry: “This doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be accessible to the mainstream though. GAME have recently opened a VR area at their Trafford Centre store, and businesses are finding different ways of using it to sell products.”

But Westcoast MD Alex Tatham believes that the early proponents of VR won’t be put off by the barrier of entry. 

“The devices are expensive no matter what. Early adopters will finance the devices – but unless there are plenty of games or programs it is not worth investing early.”

Retail is another area in which accessibility is perceived as an issue.

With Oculus adopting a retail model that will see the Rift in a limited number of stores, independent retailers feel that the company is missing a big opportunity to access an enthusiast market. 

Alford certainly believes this to be the case: “As an independent retailer, it seems to me that unless vendors embrace selling in the channel and keeping good margins, you will not see enough companies able to demo units. VR needs knowledgeable companies demoing it, not just e-tailers throwing them out at cost plus 1 per cent.”

In addition to the current cost of devices, the technology isn’t currently quite at the point where it is ready for everyday use by average consumers according to some.

 Whitworth says: “VR is very much in its infancy and consumers will wait for the technology to mature.

“The headsets themselves are quite bulky and require a cable which can be tripped over; ideally we’ll see headsets become smaller, lighter and integrate wireless tech.”

Todaro shares a similar view of the future: “I suspect that the next phase of VR will focus on mobile compatibility and streamlining the headsets, reducing cables and removing tracking cameras by introducing things such as biometric technology that recognises facial movements which the UK based start-up Emteq is developing.”

These will be contributing factors towards the design decisions of the likes of Intel, Alctael, Razer and Asus along with any others who decide to enter the market. This is, however, assuming that interest VR is maintained.

Gimmicks aside

There is still an inherent fear – like with any emerging technology – that VR will potentially just be seen as a flash in the pan. 

Context’s Jonathan Wagstaff says that even though there is a lot of investment being poured into VR, “there’s a risk that the HMD will be put in the cupboard next to the rarely used Nintendo Wii Sports kit”.

Whitworth likewise compares VR to Nintendo’s often criticised console, but also states that its non-gaming potential is already being realised by businesses: “VR has already changed this perception with corporations starting to invest large amounts to give customers a VR experience when making everyday purchases. 

For example, you’ll be able to walk into a car showroom and sit in the car customised to your very own specification before it’s even built.”

In a similar vein, Boonana J’s James Leslie can see the commercial potential. 

“I think at first we will see the likes of VR taking hold in retail outlets, being used for things such as purchasing a new car, where you can visualise on site what the optional colour schemes and wheel packages look like.” 

There is the general belief among people in the channel that, as Alford succinctly surmises, “VR needs to move beyond gaming to succeed.

“I think VR has massive potential in education, from primary school children experiencing other countries, space, under the sea etc. to university students practicing skills, like doctors and engineers, in a safe environment where they can push boundaries.”

B2C and education aren’t the only areas that could see VR applications however. Leslie believes that cinema will play a big role in the future of the technology: “Another aspect of VR that should not be overlooked is the movie industry.”

“VR needs to move beyond gaming to succeed.” 
Richard Alford, Black Bear Computing

Certainly, the film industry has invested a lot of resources into VR. Bob Snyder, Channel Media Europe editor-in-chief, argues that all signs point to VR being utilised by filmmakers: “At IFA, we learned IMAX will introduce their VR experience centers based on StarVR, the new joint venture with Starbreeze AB for building and selling the StarVR Head-Mounted Display. One of those new centres will be in London.”

There is so much scope for VR to be the defining technology of a generation, but, according to Alford: “This generation of VR is like the first tablet or smartphone. We don’t know why we need it yet and it needs vendors and retailer to tell us why.”

VR has the potential to be a truly revolutionary and essential technology for mainstream consumers and businesses, but it first needs to prove itself.

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