VR is finally here and while the launch of head-mounted displays (HMDs) hasn’t been without plenty of problems, there are enough options on every front to give the technology a chance to truly get into the hands of nearly everyone. If you’ve already taken the dive, you probably know how cool VR can be, but we’re still just skimming the surface of what’s actually possible.
This year could be make or break for VR though. Now that PC-based HMDs like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, along with mobile sets like the Gear VR and, of course, Playstation’s VR have been out long enough for developers to really start to unlock their potential, 2017 should really let VR shine with innovation.
We’ve taken a look at where the key VR systems are now and what the coming year might hold for them. Both the Rift and Vive are the high-end PC gamer choices, but with powerful gaming machines dropping in prices, they could become more consumer friendly in 2017.
Microsoft won’t be making any console-related VR announcements until they are ready to talk about their super-enhanced Xbox One (their so-called ‘Project Scorpio’), but Sony jumped right in with their PS VR. 2017 will also be the year Google really shows off their mobile VR platform, Daydream, as more phone makers release compatible devices. Daydream should also give Samsung a good push to evolve their Gear VR platform this year.
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Releases for the Rift certainly aren’t showing any signs of slowing down, but the real boost to the Facebook-owned Oculus system was the release of its $200 Touch controllers. While these pricey new add-ons aren’t strictly mandatory, developers have flocked to them, so the bulk of new games hitting require them. The Touch enables the Rift to create some amazingly immersive VR experiments, like Arizona Sunshine—a post-apocalyptic zombie survival game.
The other important boost the Touch gives Rift users is far more compatibility with Steam’s VR library. While the Rift is unlikely ever to support “room-scale” VR like the Vive, most games only require the player to either sit or stand in front of their PCs. This lets Oculus’ Touch controllers provide nearly all the same functionality. Plus, the Touch controllers are actually more sensitive and intuitive than the stock Vive controllers.
The downside of all this is cost. A big advantage Oculus had over the HTC Vive was a lower sticker price ($600), but when you add in the Touch controllers, there’s no difference now.
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The Vive was always marketed as the highest-end home VR set-up available and that’s still true. It’s the only device that can do room-scale VR—as in, it can track your movements within a set “room-sized” space thanks to sensors you set up in front of and behind your intended play area. It’s impressive and at times amazing, but also an incredible expenditure of time and house space to devote to a single device.
Paired with up PC gaming powerhouse, Steam, the Vive offers a ton of VR experiences, with more coming all the time. Steam founder, Gabe Newell, recently announced three major VR titles actually coming from the legendary developer—makers of the Half-Life and Portal series. Even more bizarre, instead of room-scale VR, Newell is looking at house scale. Whether this will mean a hardware upgrade for the Vive is unknown, but right now, the Vive is still the only way to get the “full” VR experience that allows you to really move around in a virtual space.
The other important upgrade to the Vive is their upcoming Tracker, which is a small sensor that can actually be placed on real world items to use them in a virtual world—so baseball bats, guns, wireless gloves, and other things can potentially be used to make VR experiences more real.
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Thanks to Samsung—even more so than Google over the last couple years—mobile VR has turned from a mere curiosity into a viable and entertaining platform. Granted, the Gear VR is unlikely to ever be quite as impressive as the Rift or Vive, but their steady focus on releasing new games and apps every week that cover a gamut of uses means that Samsung users always have something new and (usually) interesting to play with.
Samsung’s close relationship with Oculus has managed to give them a leg up too. The Gear VR app looks nearly identical to the Rift’s home space, for instance, and there are shared titles as well. Samsung finally has real competition coming in Google’s Daydream, however, and after last year’s Note 7 debacle, they’re in dire need of upping their game. The Gear VR hasn’t really seen any substantial changes over its lifespan. Nor does it have anything resembling motion controllers yet, although they finally announced this year’s version will come with some kind of one-handed controller. If Samsung doesn’t gain market share back, they could easily see mobile VR creators jumping over to the Daydream side.
As it stands now, they have the advantage of being out long enough to have a great selection of apps. The Gear VR still needs more focus on mainstream streaming apps beyond Netflix and their own video service, since Google’s Daydream came out swinging with a wider array of more passive entertainment choices.
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2017 should be the big year for Google’s new VR platform, Daydream. They announced it with a heavy focus on exclusives like a Need for Speed and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them game. While the gaming choices are still relatively small in comparison to the Gear VR, Google’s entertainment selection is impressive. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, YouTube VR, and more apps on the way ensure the Daydream is a near perfect private and personal home theater when paired with your favorite set of headphones.
The inclusion of its simple, but effective motion controller and striking user interface shows off just how much thought Google put into making this the VR that is potentially for everyone. The Daydream visor might look like a strangely upholstered widget, but it’s very comfortable—certainly the lightest and most comfortable that we’ve tested.
Its success, however, hinges almost entirely on other phone makers following the path of Google’s own superlative Pixel phone. Google requires some hefty mobile hardware to power the Daydream and new phones have to be certified for it. Thus far, only the Google Pixel is qualified, but that’s about to change as several manufacturers (Asus, Huawei, Motorola, and others) throw this year’s Android phones out. The Pixel (especially the XL) is an amazing device, but being tied only to Verizon is a huge problem and the phones simply aren’t widely available, so Daydream’s audience has thus far been fairly limited.
By year’s end, though, it will likely be a completely different story.
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Sony’s PSVR is the best-selling high VR system out there, which isn’t terribly surprising since it has a built-in console gamer fan base. While there have been some really excellent games and VR “experiences” for it, it wasn’t until Capcom released Resident Evil 7 with full support for the headset that it really got exciting.
The other important change since the PSVR’s release is the PlayStation 4 Pro, which Sony was downplaying the importance of prior to the VR’s launch. As it turn out, the Pro provides a legitimate boost in the performance of VR games—which can mean the difference between jerky, hurl-inducing framerates within a game and actual fun. Is it necessary, strictly speaking? No, but the Pro definitely makes for a smoother VR ride.
This year should see a considerable pick up of games for the head set, with impressive titles like Ace Combat 7, Star Trek: Bridge Crew, Gran Turismo Sport, Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, ARK Park, Farpoint (which also sees the return of Sony’s motion gun controller), and quite a few other titles in the works. So, buyers shouldn’t have much trouble finding new things to play. Sony is also expanding the virtual theater aspects of the peripheral, thanks to the PSVR’s ability to play 3D Blu-rays and plenty of streaming video apps already usable.