Wolverton: 2016 could be best and worst of times for VR

You’ve heard of peak oil? 2016 could be peak virtual reality — at least for the time being.

One major VR system — Samsung’s Gear VR — is already on store shelves and was expected to be a big seller this holiday season. Three more major systems, including the much-anticipated Oculus Rift from Facebook, will be launched in coming months. And the hype, which has been building for years, is growing to a crescendo.

But many consumers are likely to find that reality — actual reality, that is — won’t match the hype. And disappointed customers could slow sales.

As Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and strategy puts it, virtual reality is likely to see some “growing pains” this year.

The new systems, which include not just Oculus and the Gear VR, but Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive, offer a much-improved version of virtual reality compared with systems from the 1980s and 1990s. Graphics in computer-generated VR experiences are near-photo realistic. The systems generally don’t suffer from the lag or jitter that plagued earlier versions of the technology. The systems are immersive and can quickly transport users to virtual environments.

But the technology is still rough around the edges. Most notably, even with all the advances in VR, the systems can still give people vertigo. Both of the times I’ve tried on Gear VR, for example, it’s given me a massive headache.

While VR has been in development for more than 30 years, the systems that are hitting store shelves are still very much version 1.0 products. You’ll have to own a particular smartphone or a high-powered PC to use them.

Oculus owners will need to have a physical cable connected between the headset and their computer, limiting their movement. PlayStation VR will only work with the company’s PlayStation 4 console. Gear VR, which only works with Samsung’s Galaxy phones, burns through batteries rapidly.

Beyond these practical problems, consumers are likely to find that there’s a very limited amount of material they’ll be able to view on the devices. There’s just not a lot of VR content out there yet.

Worse yet, they’ll likely find that what VR content does hit the market doesn’t offer terribly good experiences. VR experts — the folks who have been developing, researching and testing the technology for decades — caution that the technology works best in relatively short experiences, say of 15 or 30 minutes.

But much of the focus of the current VR hype is on using the new systems for video games, which users often play for hours at a time. Sitting that long with a VR headset on can cause eye or neck strain — not exactly a great selling point.

We’ve seen the excitement around VR come and go repeatedly, because the technology has never been able to match the hype. It’s much further along this time around, but don’t be surprised if the hype-and-bust cycle repeats itself again.

File photo: An early developer version of the Oculus virtual reality headset. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)


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