High price tags and powerful computer demands will resign Oculus and HTC to niches.
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Sony may very well have kicked off the modern age of virtual reality with the announcement Tuesday that its upcoming PlayStation VR system will go on sale in October for $399 (U.S.), or $549 (Canadian) in Canada.
The pricing, as Sony Computer Entertainment group chief executive Andrew House affirmed at a press conference at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, is important given what the other emergent VR powers are charging for their hardware.
Facebook’s Oculus Rift is currently taking pre-orders starting at $599 (U.S.), although that’s for just the headset. Bundles with a PC capable of running games start at $1,499 and run all the way up to $3,000.
HTC’s Vive, also in pre-orders, is even more pricey at $799, although the device comes with a number of peripherals, including handheld controllers. A high-end PC, likely running $1,000 to $2,000, is also necessary.
Both rival systems will have a few months head start on Sony, with shipments starting in April.
PlayStation VR, while not exactly cheap, is obviously the most affordable VR option so far – and the only one that is likely to be within reach of mainstream consumers this year. The only extra hardware needed is a PlayStation 4, of which more than 36 million have already been sold (the console retails for $429 in Canadian dollars).
Sony’s cheaper offering does have tradeoffs in specifications, most notably with graphics. The PlayStation VR packs an OLED display with a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, versus 2,160 by 1,200 of its rivals.
The headset will ship with a graphics booster that attaches to the PS4 console, which will bring its horsepower up closer to PC standards. Ultimately, developers say the differences aren’t that noticeable.
“It’s not much of a step down,” says Ryan Geddes, global brand director for CCP Games, which is developing space shooter Eve: Valkyrie for all three systems. “You won’t notice much of a difference from Oculus to PlayStation VR.”
Sony is also touting standardization as a key selling point for its system, which goes back to the differentiating roots of consoles versus PC gaming.
Oculus and Vive developers must keep variable PC specifications in mind while working on their games, but designing for the PS VR means just one set of standards.
That’s easier and cheaper for developers, which is why Sony is promising 50 games between the system’s October launch and the end of the year. Oculus says it will have 30 at launch while HTC has so far shown off only a dozen.
Sony’s biggest advantage, however, is its existing install base. With more than 36 million PS4 consoles sold worldwide, it has a huge head start in getting mainstream consumers started on VR. That’s also going to attract developers, who will want to go after the biggest potential audience.
The race, therefore, isn’t likely to be upward to higher-end graphics, but rather downward in price. Oculus and HTC are going to have to adjust their pricing sooner or later, or risk becoming niche players in VR.