This is expected to be the year of virtual reality. Or, at the very least, the year that companies dealing in virtual reality start to convince us that it is really worth it after all. Sure, technology firms have talked for years about the potential of virtual reality, but one thing makes 2016 stand out: there are actual headsets coming that normal people can buy.
Facebook's Oculus has already started pre-orders for its long-awaited Rift headset, which should start shipping to consumers in March. The demand for the first batch of headsets has been high despite a $600 price tag — which doesn't even include the costs of getting your computer up to spec in order to use it. But orders placed now give you an estimated shipping date of May, indicating that demand has outstripped what Oculus expected.
On the low end of the price spectrum, there are products such as the Google Cardboard, which is a piece of cleverly constructed cardboard that can house a smartphone and give users a less-immersive but still compelling video-viewing experience. It's not as interactive, but it does provide an easy on-ramp for a wide swath of customers. And Google has also recently established its own virtual reality division, being run by former vice president of product management Clay Bavor.
Perhaps most tellingly, there are also a number of other companies looking at the consumer virtual reality space to provide options for consumers who want something more than a $15 Cardboard experience but don't have $1,000 to drop on a new PC with a high-end video card and the necessary processing power for the Rift.
"It's been a quiet market for many years," said Yuval Boger, chief executive of Sensics, a company that's been working on virtual reality applications for more than a decade. "I feel like I've been walking in the desert for eight of these 10 years," he said. But after years of working with companies on professional-level VR experiences — think driving simulations for car companies or training simulations for the military — Boger said he's thrilled to see consumer interest in the technology.
Last year, Sensics paired up with the game peripheral manufacturer Razer to start an open-source community for VR headset makers. The group, called Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) has added nearly a member organization per day since its launch last year, and it now counts Intel and game publisher Ubisoft among its 300 members.
The aim is to be like the Android for VR, Boger said; to provide an open-source ecosystem for many manufacturers to build upon. Android phones come at every price point and in varying degrees of quality, he said. There's no reason why VR can't follow the same model, he said, and have options for consumers at every price point.
"There are people asking if they can get a decent experience for $300 or $600 without needing to replace their computer with a high-end PC," he said.
With a broader market, Boger sees all kinds of consumer applications for VR, from viewing 360-degree movies to being able to "walk" through a house that's up for sale. And, he thinks these opportunities will start to present themselves this year because so many more people will be exposed to the technology.
"Until now VR was limited to the professional market or to enthusiasts — you [couldn't] really buy it at Best Buy or Amazon, just as a developer kit," he said. "But now you can go and buy goggles. In 2016, many more people are going to be exposed to actually using goggles instead of saying, 'Oh, I saw [movies such as] 'Minority Report' or 'Lawnmower Man' and I think I know what it will be like to wear one.' "
But those broader applications may need some time to take hold. While a Deloitte report gave rosy projections for VR for 2016, it still referred to it as a "billion dollar niche." The focus will be on gaming for some time, the firm said, as it will take time, for example, for movie studios to figure out how to make compelling films using VR.
"We congratulate VR on what we expect will be its first billion dollar year, and we forecast rising revenues in coming years: it is possible that the industry will generate tens of billions of revenues in the medium term," the report said. "What appears certain however is that VR’s potential is unlikely to be reached imminently; as with all emerging technologies patience is required."