It seems like ‘virtual reality’ (or VR as it’s commonly called) has been around for ever, doesn’t it?
The technology first took a stab at the mainstream with gaming as its catalyst in the early-1990s, when Virtuality began installing it’s machines in arcades.
It was like the The Future had come early, with films of the time like The Lawnmower Man reinforcing the notion that VR was something amazing that was here to stay.
Except it didn’t. Playing the Virtuality units in the arcades was an expensive business, the hardware and headsets were cumbersome and, fatally, the games just weren’t good enough. It was style over substance and Virtuality’s 3D immersive worlds all came crashing down by the middle of the decade.
Others also tried and failed to make an impact with VR, like Nintendo’s and its Virtual Boy or Sega with the Sega VR headset, but all followed the same fate as Virtuality.
And that was pretty much it for more than 10 years. It was probably Google’s launch of Street View in 2007 that first breathed new life into the twitching corpse of VR and now, in July 2015, we’re on the cusp of what appears to be a second coming for the technology.
For tech dealers and the IT trade generally, it’s looking like a whole new category of entertainment (and potentially educational and business) hardware will be thrust upon us later this year and into 2016.
Put simply, you should start factoring VR hardware into your thinking now, and here’s why.
The key difference between the VR of then and the VR of now is that the latest incarnation(s) are based on home use and are being backed by some of the biggest technology and entertainment companies in the world.
That should equate to robust, affordable hardware; high-quality and sufficiently volumous software support; and significant marketing budgets for the products when they launch.
As in the 1990s, gaming is the primary driver for the new VR and, as things stand, there are three main proponents of the technology:
The most documented piece of modern-day VR kit is the Oculus Rift - a headset developed by a company called Oculus VR, which was itself bought by Facebook for nearly $2 billion in March last year.
The product, which has been in serious development since Oculus VR secured funding via a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, comprises a headset, separate positioning camera (think of it like a Kinect-type peripheral) and controllers for each hand called Oculus Touch.
It will work with Windows-powered PCs and, as it stands, Oculus VR says it will begin taking consumer pre-orders for the Rift in November this year, with shipments starting in 1Q 2016.
In addition, back in May Microsoft confirmed it will bundle Xbox One controllers with the Oculus Rift headsets, so that games running on the console could be streamed to said headsets via a Windows 10 PC.
The price point for the Oculus Rift is expected to be in the $200-$400 range, but while the positioning camera will be bundled with the headset, the controllers will be sold separately.
In terms of PC performance requirements, the Oculus Rift will need a CPU equivalent or greater than an Intel i5-4590 and a GPU equivalent or greater to an Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD 290.
Software support should be forthcoming, with dev kits in the hands of developers for a couple of years now. While not all games can work with the Oculus Rift, playable titles include Half Life 2, BioShock, Elite: Dangerous and Left 4 Dead.
Project Morpheus is Sony’s take on the VR headset system, with the company on several occasions asserting that the technology is ‘the future of games’. So we had better listen.
It’s probably the best-placed VR solution in terms of going head-to-head with Oculus Rift, particularly as it dials into the PlayStation peripherals and software ecosystem.
The headset itself comprises a 5.7 inch 1920 X RGB X 1080 resolution OLED display, and can work in conjunction with the existing PS4 console, including the Move controllers and Sharpshooter gun.
While Project Morpheus (expect the name to change) is still in prototype mode, Sony has asserted that the device will be launched in the first half of 2016.
The company has also confirmed a slew of games in development for Project Morpheus, encompassing both first party titles and titles from the likes of Rebellion, UbiSoft and Bandai Namco.
Pricing has not be confirmed, but you can expect huge support from the Sony PlayStation marketing machine.
Valve’s Steam VR platform is probably the most nebulous of the ‘big three’ VR systems in development.
It’s likely that Steam VR headsets and associated hardware will be manufactured under license by various consumer electronics firms, with software support across Windows and Linux PCs via the Steam online store.
The only Steam VR product to be announced to date is the Vive, which is built by HTC and available only to developers at this stage. The Vive dev kit includes a headset, two controllers and two base stations to track user movement.
Valve says that a consumer launch can be expected ‘later in 2015’, most likely in conjunction with its SteamOS-powered ‘Steam Machine’ Linux games console.
Software support shouldn’t be an issue, with Valve making an API available so that developers can ensure the games they’re already selling via the Steam online store (and by default the Steam Machines) also work with Steam VR.
Like Oculus Rift, Steam VR also has the support of Microsoft, which confirmed at this year’s E3 that it had partnered with Valve to ensure the Steam VR system supports Windows 10 games. Though the announcement was light on detail, Microsoft said it "will be working closely with Valve to make Windows 10 the best platform for VR gaming."
In terms of pricing, Valve management have alluded to high-end positioning, which probably puts the Steam VR hardware around the $500 mark.
The Best of the Rest
The new VR market isn’t just the preserve of the above games giants - there are smaller, cheaper and mobile phone-centric VR products out there that are worth keeping an eye on.
Google’s Cardboard is, literally, made of cardboard and is intended to be a low-cost DIY solution that will help drive mainstream interest in VR. It works by placing an Android or iPhone into a fold out cardboard headset to be used a viewer, with various apps already available for download.
Another cardboard option is the Dodocase VR Pop-Up Viewer, which supports usage with both iPhone and Android devices, costs $25 and works with apps like Google’s Cardboard.
The Zeiss VR One, meanwhile, is available in two different versions for iPhone 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. Unlike the Cardboard and Dodocase it’s a hard case plastic headset and is uprooted by the VR One Cinema app, which allows the user to watch movies (actually any video stored on their phone) on a massive virtual ‘screen’.
Samsung’s Gear VR works in a similar way, but works in conjunction with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. It was developed in partnership with Oculus and is available for $199.99.