What’s new in Virtual Reality?

Tech Today with Ken May

2016 just might be the year that Virtual Reality finally makes it into the mainstream gaming audience. Right now, there are several strong contenders in the VR arena. Oculus, with its flagship Rift, is owned by Facebook. Samsung has its Gear VR, Sony, its PlayStation VR, and HTC recently launched its highly anticipated Vive VR system. The last time we heard a lot of noise about VR was back in the 1990s. They were doomed form the start, though, with huge hardware, poor graphics, and a cost that prohibited any consumer purchases.

What exactly is Virtual Reality you ask? In its current incarnation, a VR headset rests on the user’s head, covering the eyes, and has built in headphones to produce an immersive experience. The player usually has a controller in one or more hands, although there may also be a Kinect-type hands-free camera tracking systems as well. The headset is able to track your head movements in any direction, so wherever you look, your game character looks.

Right now, each device has its own unique specs or features that might make it more attractive than another, but they are all roughly the same. A key differentiator for the public may wind up being cross-platform compatibility. It’s expected that the Sony unit will only work with games on its platform, however the Oculus and HTC units support PC gaming. Both the Samsung Gear and the Oculus have some Android support for mobile gaming. Currently, it looks like iPhone users have to deal with cheap units that actually strap the phone to your head.

Virtual Reality device sales will hit 14 million units worldwide in 2016, providing a strong launch point for the category, according to data released from the Topology Research Institute, a division of research firm TrendForce. The firm expects sales to rise to 18 million units in 2017 and 22 million by the end of 2018. In 2020, sales could reach 38 million units worldwide.

The HTC Vive which went up for pre-order on February 29, and is due to start shipping on April 5, apparently racked up more than 15,000 pre-orders in less than 10 minutes, according to a tweet by HTC VR dev Shen Ye. That’s impressive considering this is a $799 system, and it requires a strong PC to run anything. The Oculus Rift, is also up for pre-order, costing $599, and also due to ship in April.

Virtual Reality games require less resources to produce than Virtual Reality movies, according to TrendForce. “First-person games in particular can be ported to VR devices with some modifications,” the firm said in a release Tuesday. “The relatively low costs and minimal time requirement thus will be strong incentives for game developers as they will become major content providers for VR hardware.”

Ultimately, VR entertainment, such as movies, and streaming live events could be the killer features it needs to gain traction.

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