At CES 2016, we got a glimpse of the real arrival of consumer virtual reality (VR). VR is an immersive experience where you can interact with your simulated environment, real or imaginary. VR has been promised for decades (does anyone remember the movie Lawnmower Man (1992)?) but up until now, hasn't delivered a convincing experience that truly transports the user. We're finally at the inflection point for mass adoption - processing power (needed to realistically render a complex 3D environment that tracks with one's movements) and display technology (that presents a pixel-dense, quickly refreshing image separately to each eye) can finally deliver the dream of VR.
The first consumer ready Oculus Rift, developed by Facebook-owned Oculus, was on display at CES. Previously only available as a developer edition, the Oculus Rift is open to pre order and set to be available to all consumers in March 2016 for $599.
The package includes the headset that provides the visual experience with mounted headphones, an Xbox One game controller for navigating in the virtual world and a camera that provides head tracking. What the package doesn't include is the powerful computer needed to drive the experience - Oculus estimates at least $1000 for the necessary processing capability. The equipment is of little use if there is no content; however, the units will ship with two games, Lucky's Tale and Herobound, and the Oculus store will have many more games, applications and experiences available to new VR adventurers.
Perhaps the top challenger to Oculus' domination of the early days of VR is the HTC Vive, which had a long line waiting to demo the unit and garnered a best VR of CES award. The Vive is a partnership between smartphone manufacturer HTC and the game developer Valve, and while generally similar to the Rift, has two significant differentiators. First, it has a front-facing camera for integrating your real surroundings into the virtual. Second, it has a Chaperone system which allows you to walk around in your virtual environment by actually walking around but not bumping into things in your room. Room-scale VR lends a significant boost to the feeling of immersion, being able to traverse in VR as you do in the real world and makes VR a more active experience. The Vive is also expected to ship with VR-specific controllers, while Oculus' Touch controllers are not due until the second half of 2016.
The Vive is taking pre-orders at the end of February, but the price has not yet been disclosed. Given Valve's expertise in game development, there are expected to be many VR-optimized games available in 2016.
Finally, Sony's virtual gaming system linked to their gaming-console PS4, PlayStation VR, was also on display at CES 2016, although little new information was disclosed.
Expected sometime in 2016, PlayStation VR has the benefit of a large installed base of PS4 units (over 36 million sold so far) and popular game developers on board. While the display resolution is not as high as the Rift or Vive, the refresh rate (which can improve immersion and helps reduce nausea) is higher and the PlayStation remotes are already spatially aware.
The consumer releases of the Rift, Vive and PlayStation VR in 2016 signals the beginning of the VR revolution. Likely relegated to early adopters at first given the high prices and other hardware needs, the user experience and VR content will be developed for more mass adoption in the next few years. First to market does not guarantee success and competition for consumers' wallets among the big three will drive innovation in product and content development.