Virtual Reality's Dirty Little Secret

June 01, 2016
By: Rob Enderle

Actually, I could likely write this as a reusable piece and just do a global find and replace on the words that define the technology.  For instance this piece written in the 1980s might have said “Quadraphonic”, in the 1990s “HD”, and last decade “3D”.  Every one of these things had the same dirty little secret, the hardware comes out well in advance of the software.  This is largely why Microsoft went to a HoloLens offering and targeted space exploration first because, in that market for a specific customer, the hardware and software are/were created in tandem.    Now realize that in all of those early cases eventually the content showed, well except for 3D, that bubble goes up every couple of decades then pops because we still can’t do 3D without glasses.  But, you know, VR will fix that.

Let me explain. 

Why Technology Births Are Painful

What prompted this column is an article in the Wall Street Journal accurately pointing out that VR is overhyped.  The reason for this is that if vendors don’t see excitement they won’t develop products, and if you don’t get new products people stop buying – and a lot of tech employees find other careers catastrophically.  So a small number of companies start showing off uncooked prototypes, get people excited who buy this stuff and then find there is nothing out there to run on it.  But this now gives software developers someone to build for and, eventually, software shows up and then you have a viable market.  Those early adopters often get screwed in the process.  Because by the time the software shows up the problems with the early hardware are found and corrected and the devices get cheaper leaving the early adapters with expensive, buggy and largely obsolete hardware. 

The first Oculus Rift headsets aren’t even shipping with the needed two cameras (for space mapping) or the proper VR controllers.   (Granted you’ll likely be able to at least buy them later). 

Your Best Path To VR

This suggests that if you want to try VR early your best path will either be on a game system like the Xbox One or Sony PlayStation 4 as game console makers often make their own games to feature new functions or a Smartphone based system.  With games systems this means you’ll get a game that makes the VR system work likely bundled with that VR accessory and if you don’t like the game, you won’t buy the accessory.  So either you’ll end up with something you want to play or you’ll save your money you won’t end up with an expensive headset that lacks content.  Game system VR systems heavily leverage the console so tend to cost substantially less (right now expected to come it at around $400) than PC based VR systems. 

In terms of quality, the PC based VR systems are far better but at an almost untenable cost.  They do bundle games but the cost is substantially higher, you not only need a gaming PC that will handle the load but you’ll need a headset which costs more ($600+) than many pay for PCs today – you are likely going to want to wait until there several games you just need to have and can afford the full setup.   I’d suggest waiting until next year to even think about going this route unless you are a developer.

The cheapest way to get into VR is with a Smartphone that supports it and one of a number of low cost headsets that go with it.  Google (News - Alert) even has a cardboard headset that isn’t that bad given it is cardboard for under $20 and you can download games from the App store.  Granted the experience will be well below the first two and likely best for movies (the whole controller thing isn’t well cooked yet) but you can get nice solution for a fraction of the cost of the other two, and it is an interesting way to get your feet wet without jumping over the expense waterfall.  

Now there is a PC/Smartphone bridge product that looks interesting called the NEO, which is worth watching but little companies carry a ton of risk and even though this product is very well priced and looks good on spec I’d sure try before you buy something like this.  However, I expect, this will be closer to what we’ll likely end up with so it is worth checking out.  

Wrapping Up:

For the most part VR will be a 2017 event because it won’t be until then that we’ll likely get to enough content to make this segment interesting.  Perhaps the best advice is to follow the content to the device you buy.  If you see a game you really want to play and if it is worth the cost of the hardware then buy in, much like you would with a game console, you want to buy something you can enjoy right out of the box not wait in the hope something interesting will eventually show up (because it might not).  

So I have little doubt VR is coming and that it eventually will be compelling I’m just suggesting you don’t buy in until it is compelling enough for you.   There is an old saying “Pioneers get the arrows, settlers get the land”.  You may want to miss the arrow phase.  Just saying.