HTC bets on movement while Oculus eyes exclusives and Sony goes for price.
VR Headset Strategies:
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I spent a couple more hours this week with the HTC Vive virtual reality headset and, aside from having my mind blown once again, the different value propositions of the competing players is pretty clear now. Here’s your quick and dirty guide to the VR market, as it currently stands:
HTC Vive: HTC is currently the only competitor offering room-scale VR, meaning that the Vive headset lets users get up and move around a pre-defined play space. How it does so is pretty impressive.
The Vive system makes use of two base stations installed at opposing corners of the room, a maximum of five metres apart. The stations, which need to be about seven feet up – either on tripods, mounted on a wall or sitting on a bookshelf – form a roughly 15-by-15-foot square play area.
The stations emit invisible lasers – one tracks vertically while the other does so horizontally – that continuously scan the location and position of the headset and handheld controllers. The PC that everything attaches to then calculates the wearer’s exact position and transfers it into a virtual environment.
The Vive is the furthest along in replicating the idea of the Star Trek Holodeck, since it allows for an immersive feel that includes movement – and which doesn’t include dumb add-ons like treadmills.
However, movement is limited to within that small box area, which means software developers still have to use tricks to allow users to get around.
A number of demo games I’ve played, for example, require you to aim one of your controllers at a spot; clicking the trigger teleports you to that location. It works, but it’s kind of disappointing. When you’re in a VR world, you just want to go to be able to walk to wherever you can see.
Rival Oculus is also planning room-scale VR, complete with purpose-built handheld controllers, but movement so far is limited to Xbox-style game controllers.
Oculus Rift: Facebook-owned Oculus’s biggest attraction is exclusive content. About a third of the Oculus Rift’s launch titles can’t or won’t be found on rival platforms, with future plans continuing in the same vein.
Oculus has taken some heat for that given the nascent stage VR is in, with some critics believing headset vendors should be open at this stage of the game and not force software makers and consumers to pick. Having all titles available across all platforms will spur overall uptake of VR.
On the other hand, exclusivity is an accepted practice in most other content fields, from Netflix versus other streaming services to Xbox versus PlayStation, so it’s not like Oculus is doing anything incredibly brash.
PlayStation VR: Sony’s entry, due in October, is the obvious one for price-conscious buyers – or more specifically, for the masses.
At $399 (U.S.) or $549 (Canadian), PlayStation VR will be cheaper than either of its two main rivals. The HTC Vive is $799 (U.S.) while the Oculus Rift is $599, but that only gets you in the door. Both systems require costly high-end PCs, which can add thousands of dollars to the final tally.
Sony’s option requires only a PlayStation 4, currently selling for around $400 (Canadian). More to the point, many consumers who want to get into VR are likely also gamers who already have a PS4 console.
The PlayStation VR is, for my money, the likeliest player for the time being to get big uptake as a result, even if its graphics aren’t quite as sharp as its rivals.
Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard: Both Samsung and Google have even cheaper VR offerings, but neither is at the same level as the big three players.
Gear VR and Cardboard are both mobile oriented, designed to work with smartphones as their guts. Neither has the processing or graphics power to deliver the full immersive experiences that PC- or even console-oriented VR can as a result.
Both are decent appetizers that will tempt users toward more high-powered systems, and both are intended to showcase their respective firms’ technical prowess.
All told, the young VR field is already quite diverse with the major players employing different strategies. With the market expected to grow from about $1 billion (U.S.) this year to $30 billion by 2020, there’s obviously lots of room for all of them.
It’s going to be fun to watch, and to experience first-hand. Or virtually, whatever the case may be.