Virtual reality headsets have gone in a strange direction as of late. What has generally been predicted to be an extremely niche product for the wealthiest end of the PC gaming community has had most of its latest innovations and successes come out of inexpensive alternative hardware made for ordinary smartphones.
This isn't to say that mobile VR is without its setbacks, but it has become increasingly difficult to hold out hope for the idea that the world's grandest, most immersive experiences are coming by way of a headset anytime soon. Nobody can say whether or not virtual reality is destined to be nothing more than a means of watching Netflix on the moon, but there are a lot of factors spelling trouble for headsets designed for high-end devices and high-end content.
A Monitor That Costs Half As Much As Your Console
The first and most obvious issue is price, naturally. The PlayStation VR, the most modestly priced among non-mobile headsets, starts at $300. Of course you will also need a PlayStation 4 for it to be anything more than an attractive sleeping mask, which may set you back an additional $400. For the headset to actually work properly, though, you'll need the PlayStation Camera, currently priced at $60. Then, of course, you'll want to buy two PlayStation Move controllers to get a complete experience, since you're already in pretty deep, adding another $100 to the bill.
You could buy the console and the controllers secondhand, of course, though the lack of support the Move got back in 2010 probably means that not many people took good enough care of their devices for them to work as well as you might want them to, and the PS4 is still a relatively new system, especially the PS4 Pro that the headset was made for. You could shave off about $140 if you were willing to take an inferior console and two controllers with reduced battery capacity, but that still means that the ultimate price range of PSVR comes out to $720–$860 before you actually buy any software.
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive don't fare any better, though they at least require fewer add-ons. The Rift, which heralded the entire move toward VR development, starts at $600, only costing another $200 for its new Touch controllers, or about $40 for a generic gamepad, or nothing at all if you are comfortable with using your own keyboard and mouse while blind.
The Vive, famed for its ability to handle room-scale VR and high-quality motion controls, costs $800 flat. Of course, you need a desktop capable of running VR programs and, while both systems have a reasonable library of nonintensive experiences, most everything these systems were designed for assume you have a current, high-end desktop, which may cost as much as $1200, not even considering the truly niche top-end machines that could cost twice as much as that.
Regardless of if you choose the Rift or the Vive, you are ultimately going to have to pay more than $2000 for a complete experience before actually buying anything to use the hardware for, though at least you get a nice PC if you end up not liking the VR headset.
These somewhat painful prices aren't news, really, nor were they even unexpected. VR is being held up as a new frontier in technology, and early adoption is always going to be expensive. What makes these prices egregious, however, is the fact that these products do not actually comprise the entire VR market. Oculus's Gear VR, Google Cardboard, and Google Daydream View cost nowhere near as much, while boasting ease of use, portability, and smartphone compatibility.
The Daydream, the most expensive of the lot, is forecast to cost $80 at release, the catch being that the first Daydream-compatible phones — the Google Pixel and Pixel XL — are releasing alongside it at $650 and $770, respectively. Daydream compatibility is expected to become a new standard feature in smartphones, however, meaning that, at some point, you are probably going to own something that can run a Daydream View, regardless of if you intend on buying it. In addition, headset will come free if you pre-order the phone, cutting the barrier to entry even further.
The Gear VR in the middle priced among the major mobile VR contender, costing $100 — that's $20 more than the Daydream, but it will work with most any current Android phone, and has its own free-headset-for-phone-purchase deals. Smartphone VR applications aren't generally headset specific, but most of them have been developed assuming the user is utilizing a Gear VR, which may bring some confidence to anybody worrying about the industry at large discontinuing support for specific VR headsets, which would essentially brick the machine.
There's little to say about Google Cardboard, which costs $15 and runs the same applications as any other headset of its kind. For those unaware of the product, the name isn't just a pithy comment on its price: It is literally a set of paper-craft goggles that you place your phone at the front of. The quality of the experience suffers, of course; there is no seal to stop outside light from hitting the screen, there is nothing to the hardware besides what the phone can do, and it ruins any mystique about how this kind of VR works — it splits the screen in two so each eye sees the complete image separately. However, it costs less than a sandwich, and can hypothetically be made for free if you have your own building materials, as Google has provided the printable layout.
What Does It Actually Do?
Price only really matters in the context of what value one should expect to get from their purchase, and that is where the big three VR platforms fall flat. At the moment, PlayStation VR's library consists mostly of tech demos that prove the virtual reality actually works, but doesn't say anything as to whether or not it's actually a good idea backed by good mechanical execution. As a dedicated video game console, the only real VR experiences one can expect from PSVR will be first-person video games.
Early users from all systems report that attempting to actually move around in-game from a truly first-person perspective is incredibly nauseating if it doesn't involve the player actually walking about in real life, so Sony has yet to make public any games that don't involve the player character being perfectly stationary, such as sitting in a rollercoaster with targets to shoot at, or a game of virtual table tennis. More games will be developed, sure, but there's nothing as of yet that suggests PSVR will add any value to games as a whole.
The Oculus Rift partially dodges the stationary-play issue by having a wide variety of experiences — mostly video games, that do manage to work under the restriction of the player character not being allowed to move their body. Flight sims, space games, sightseeing tours and the like all work, since the player is in a cockpit of sorts, perhaps controlled by them, but displaced enough from the experience of walking that it doesn't create a nauseating dissonance.
PSVR could perhaps incorporate experiences like those from the Rift's library to fix the issue with the lack of content, but things like Euro Truck Simulator and Elite: Dangerous are so niche and so thoroughly designed around keyboard and mouse that they probably wouldn't see a market on console.
The Vive is the only headset that can completely subvert the motion sickness issue by way of its use of room-scale VR. To walk forward in-game, you walk in real life. Or you might just lift your leg and lean forward, since you don't have infinite space, but either represents walking well enough to get rid of the limitation. This still means that you have to design an experience that has to compensate for the player ambling around a room while completely blind and potentially off balance, but that is still a broader range than the competition can provide, though I am still skeptical as to whether such a thing would be immersive enough after the novelty wears off to justify all the restraints.
VR applications used by smartphones naturally have the same restrictions as the Rift and the PSVR, though there's a notable difference in that phone apps are small, limited experiences anyway. Most first- and third-person games you'll find on Google Play or the App Store don't involve movement to begin with, due to the lack of controls the phone has, besides "tap with one finger" and "tap with two fingers," so it is a natural fit.
The same goes for any non-game applications that might also benefit from VR, such as video streaming or Google Street View. The logistical and mechanical concerns are made small by how small everything else is. A Rift, Vive or PSVR could have small experiences like that, too, but that would be a lot less convenient and a lot more expensive than just getting a Cardboard, assuming more people have smartphones than high-end desktops.
Good Eyes, Good Health, And A Living Room
While less obvious a concern, the fact that the whole virtual reality market is hard capped by the physical ability of the user will doubtlessly have some influence on how well the headsets do at market. All products are somewhat exclusionary, but virtual reality headsets have a lot more deal-breakers than most expensive consumer technology.
For the PSVR, the user needs to:
- Be comfortably able to stand and perform quick head movements for long periods.
- Have room for the PlayStation Camera and ample arm space for the Move.
- Not be particularly sweaty (condensation around the face is reportedly an issue).
- Be fond of the Tron: Legacy-esque design of the device.
Oculus Rift users need to:
- Not require most eyeglasses need for vision.
- Be comfortable with the Rift's significant heft.
- Suffer no tendency toward eye strain.
- Tolerate the Rift's relatively uncomfortable head strap.
And Vive users need to:
- Have a large room free of clutter for the room scale to work.
- Be comfortable walking around for long periods.
- Not have a tendency toward eye strain.
- Be able to move while blind and deaf without losing balance.
- Not need any large glasses to see.
- Be comfortable with the headset's bulk and the amount of wires involved.
While portable VR users need to:
- Not require very large glasses.
- Be comfortable draining the battery on their phone.
None of these are particularly monumental issues on their own, but buying into bigger VR is such an investment in a field that could disappoint in so many ways. As a highly niche product, VR headsets can only survive if everyone that might be interested buys in despite the risk, and not being able to sell to customers with poor eye health, general health issues, or the right living space may result in a lot of sorely missed sales.
Again, before accounting for the price of the phone, Daydream and Gear VR cost a dinner for one at a nice restaurant, while the Cardboard costs a package of deli meat. It is entirely feasible that a consumer could buy one of these knowing they might not be good value just because it's such a small investment. They have both been designed with eyeglasses in mind, on the assumption that the user is sitting in a chair, and with intent to create an ergonomic, comfortable fit, rather than stretching the limits of wearable technology's capacity.
The idea of emphasizing polish over technical ability so early in the lifespan of VR as a whole may seem a bit strange to some, but VR has established itself well enough that these products need to sell to consumers more than they need to challenge engineers. As of yet, only the glossy, low-powered entrants into the field seem able to capitalize on that, and they may be what keeps the entire concept of VR afloat in the years to come.
PlayStation VR will release October 13 and is set to cost $300. The Google Daydream View is released in November and is set to retail for $79. What's your opinion on the future of VR? Sound off in the comments section below.
I am not affiliated with any company or product mentioned in this article. Statements about unreleased products come from the impressions and reviews by those given early access, e.g. review copies and press demos.