2016 is already recognized by anyone and everyone in tech to be the birth year of virtual reality. The year VR finally takes off, where the early adopters can, at long last, put their hands (or eyes) on a VR headset and see what the fuss has been about, ever since Palmer Luckey shocked the tech space in 2012 with a taped prototype that re-ignited so many people’s broken virtual reality dreams. The year where not one, but three major brands; Oculus, HTC and Sony, submit to gamers their solutions to the long-awaited promise of a believable, immersive VR experience.
But if this year is the one where the first consumer products hit the market, next year will be the one where we could see the first signs of mass adoption. I’m predicting that it will come through Sony’s PlayStation VR, almost exclusively.
It’s also been widely acknowledged that virtual reality will first come into our lives through gaming platforms. Of the three being introduced in the next few months, Sony’s PSVR is clearly the most modest offering, tech wise. Oculus’ Rift and especially the HTCvive Pre are wonders of state-of-the-art technology that will wow even the most demanding VR evangelists and connoisseurs. They run on the best hardware and software, and offer the most immersive experiences. But where Sony lacks in uncompromised quality, it more than makes up for on marketing experience, infrastructure and community. Now there’s absolutely no doubt that a Facebook-backed Oculus can compete, and even outrank Sony in deploying a solid infrastructure and that HTC also has a respectable amount of marketing credentials to put forward. But no one can create a better synergy with all three than Sony.
Ever since the launch of the PlayStation 4 back in 2013, Sony has clearly prioritized games over technical execution, which allowed them to keep the PS4 at a decent price point and offer games with mass appeal. They have put games developers in charge of their new console’s success by investing in their relationships with them and giving them the tools to build great games that gamers love. This strategy has already been proven successful in the three short years (actually two and a half years) of the PS4’s existence, simply by measuring the PS4’s worldwide sales next to Microsoft’s XBOX One’s. Sony comes out the clear winner of this particular face-off, so much so that Microsoft is now offering cross-platform compatibility to try to leech off of PlayStation’s head start and try to win back online gamers in the process.
There is absolutely no reason for Sony to change the strategy for the introduction of PSVR, and we already know that’s the way they’re taking it since they have announced about 230 PSVR projects in development, a full six months before launch. they have clearly leveraged their relationships with game devs to convince them to invest time and resources on PSVR, which was probably not very difficult, let’s be honest. When introducing a totally new technology, nobody knows what will stick and what won’t. With 230 titles coming PSVR’s way, they have chosen to let the users decide in what direction it’s going to go. It’s a model borrowed from Apple’s Appstore: give them the tools and the infrastructure, and let the dev’s duke it out. The cream will inevitably rise to the top.
Oculus’ Rift and HTCvive’s Pre both cater to the same niche of early adopters, a very small market when compared to the general gaming and entertainment community covered by the already very successful PlayStation franchise. A market of geeks who aren’t afraid to perform open-heart surgery on a 1500$ PC to boost CPU performance by three percent. They are a necessary step and a loyal bunch, but they are anything but the mainstream. Most people are looking for a plug-and-play solution that won’t need to be constantly upgraded to work with the latest Call of Duty release. They consider gameplay before graphics and probably won’t ever complain about it if they haven’t put on a better quality headset before.
Sony is blessed in that way, to have not one but two competitors. Both of the other guys’ focus is going to be mainly on each other, which will lead them to engage in a “platform war” the way XBOX and PlayStation have for years now. And with Microsoft going the AR road with Hololens, and being still years away from a consumer-ready product, the path is clear for Sony to take the market fast and not leave much behind.
Of course, Sony probably won’t be able to retain the top spot in the VR game for many years.VR will diversify and spread in many more fields while Sony’s focus will rightfully stay on gaming. It will be interesting to see if Sony ends up being the one who breaks the window to let everyone out while perishing in the fire. Mass adoption of VR might just be Sony’s last meaningful contribution to the world before slowly going to sleep. The PlayStation franchise has dominated the gaming space for twenty years now and history has shown that disruptive technological advancements usually claim the champ’s belt. Let’s all just hope I’m wrong about this one.