2017 VR/AR Review & Reflection

This time last year, as is the way, I wrote up my review of 2016 and 2017 predictions as to what would happen in the world of VR and AR. Let’s take a look at how those predictions turned out and whether it’s worthwhile trying to predict what’s going to happen in 2018…

Prediction 1: AR will become more relevant for commercial enterprise with viable hardware for non-gaming use in the workplace (+)

Analysts have long predicted that AR will dwarf VR in terms of market size in the near future but we can see that the hardware still has some way to go to make it appealing to the mass-market, wider-adoption consumer. However Apple and Android have been making strong cases for markerless mobile AR, which utilising more powerful smartphones and camera technology, is seeing a resurgence in popularity since Pokemon GO made everyone think about AR again. With ARKit and ARCore, there are many examples of engaging mobile AR content beyond what we had seen previously with smartphone and QR codes or earlier iterations of Vuforia.

However for enterprise, users need or will want to have their hands free and so far, mobile AR isn’t doing much more than just projecting content onto a detected flat surface. Headset-based AR is the future, with Microsoft Hololens, Meta 2.0, Daqri and of course Magic Leap all pushing boundaries. It seems Microsoft are building up to the next reveal / stage of Hololens with news around chipsets and factories closing that make and support the current beta headset. Meta 2.0 had shipping issues early on in the year. Daqri have two products commercially available, their helmet and glasses and recently, Magic Leap revealed their first headset after much secrecy, the Magic Leap One Creators Edition.

So whilst 2017 provided strong starting foundation for AR in the workplace, there’s still a long way to go in terms of wider adoption and acceptance. I don’t think 2018 is going to be that defining year either but we’ve come to learn and expect slow, gradual growth rather than an explosion. (B+)

Prediction 2: Number of wireless “full VR” stop-gap supporting add-ons will be available, freeing user of the tether but add new set of challenges (+/-)

What has been known and become clear this year is that standalone VR headsets will ultimately be defacto standard. No wires, no cables, no bulky PCs, just an easy-to-use headset with everything built-in and inside-out tracking allowing 6DoF movement and input. Well, that’s the dream anyway and wireless solutions can allow users a glimpse of that by removing the cables at least.

Whilst there are wireless standards and devices in development, reported since 2016, only TPCast really delivered in albeit small numbers, with the HTC Vive and very recently Oculus Rift versions being available for pre-order and delivery outside of China. However they are clunky, have a hodgepodge of hardware cobbled together and you can’t use more than one in an area, crushing dreams of free-roaming multiuser setups.

Hopefully 2018 will see other devices that are easier to setup and use, are more comfortable to wear and allow more than one to operate together, although we know with the releases of standalone HMDs from Vive, Oculus and Google will mean that the need and desire will wain moving forwards. (C+)

Prediction 3: VR Arcades will continue to rise in popularity whilst cost remains a barrier to entry for many but with a 5-yr lifespan as prices fall (+)

Throughout my travels in 2017, which admittedly weren’t to that many places, but I’ve seen VR arcades popping up everywhere. When in Budapest, Hungary, there were at least four I found (although admittedly their grasp of legal use of VR software titles was minimal). My own home town of Brighton now sports a permanent setup in the shape of The VR Concept at The World’s End pub and a pop-up VR arcade called GOVR, who seem to be everywhere and anywhere all at once (and also regularly showcase our social multiplayer party VR game Loco Dojo).

Our game is also available as part of the Steam VR Commercial Licence and we’re seeing high numbers of recurring monthly subscribers for the title. Also having setup arrangements with the likes of CTRL-V, VR Junkies and added it to the SpringboardVR VR Arcade control platform, it seems that VR Arcades really did take off in 2017.

We’re working with Roto VR, to build the backend content delivery platform, SDKs and media player for the motorised chair hardware, we know that hundreds of units are being prepared for deployment at museums, arcades, shopping malls and other public locations.

Elsewhere we’ve seen The VOID open up a temporary installation of the Star Wars out-of-home VR entertainment experience at the Westfield shopping centre in London, which is receiving rave reviews. Some VR developers are now focusing on creating VR Arcade-friendly content as a way to survive until the home user market and install base is larger.

As for validity of the length of time it’s a viable business, hard to say. Hardware prices have tumbled throughout 2017 but access to required space at home hasn’t (SteamVR Hardware Survey results show that the minimum area is still the most common) so the price of entry is still £250,000+ for a house with a spare room for VR. (A+)

Prediction 4: Microsoft will release number of manufacture-partner headsets at a lower cost but at increase of market fragmentation for developers (+/-)

Yep this happened but as yet, sales volumes are unknown. Whilst they were at lower cost than other PC VR headsets, such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, aggressive price cuts announced at OC4 sees the Rift + Touch bundle now being the same as the Windows Mixed Reality headsets.

Whilst developers can create native versions of their apps for the Windows 10 app store for the WMR HMDs, a last-minute announcement shortly before launch saw the hardware supporting OpenVR and therefore SteamVR out of the box, dramatically widening the amount of content available at launch (always a key requirement for uptake) as well as removing some of the developer headache of having to support yet another SDK and VR platform.

The only downside (for us in Europe at least) is the fact that the WMR HMD considered to be the best of the bunch available, isn’t (the Samsung Odyssey) but hopefully this will change in the future? (A-)

Prediction 5: Apple won’t announce an AR/VR device, not until it’s ready for release within a month of the Keynote. Too many almost-theres currently (-)

Well, technically correct in that no AR/VR hardware from Apple was announced this year but with the introduction of ARKit, millions of existing and new Apple devices with the launch of iPhone 8/X meant that a wide userbase of mobile AR users were already there waiting for content.

Maybe 2018 will be the year but personally I think we’re still looking at 2019 or 2020 for an AR hardware reveal from Apple, based upon output and support from the other hardware manufacturers and noises on the rumourmill. (B+)

Prediction 6: Mobile VR motion tracked user input will be viable with a variety of solutions available, bridging the tethered/untethered gap (+)

Whilst there are a number of development and prototype mobile VR tracked input solutions, very few have actually made it to market or been able to offer reliable support or hardware design interfaces.

Samsung Gear VR and Oculus offered a 3DoF controller with support for a range of titles, alongside the Google Daydream View mobile VR HMD, also with 3DoF but we’ll have to wait until 2018 for the HTC Vive Focus with 6DoF spacial movement tracking but still with a 3DoF controller (although not currently announced for release in The West).

Early 2018 will also see the release of the Oculus Go, an all-in-one Gear VR compatible device, still only with 3D0F. The details of the controller for Magic Leap One is stated as 6DoF but how this works hasn’t been revealed. Late 2018 will see dev kits for Oculus Santa Cruz with 6DoF inside-out motion and input tracking but this won’t be commercially available. (It’s increasingly likely the Go and Santa Cruz will merge into a single unit in the future). (C-)

Prediction 7: New GFX cards from NVidia / AMD will offer quality of VR firmly placing PSVR in the mid-range zone. Console gamers won’t care though (+/-)

There will *always* be new graphics cards released each year, causing the current best of class models to drop in price, making higher quality graphics for VR be more readily available. NVidia released the 1080ti and AMD announced a series of VEGA-powered chipsets due for release alongside their Ryzen CPUs and 580-based graphics cards.

Whilst the Sony PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR HMD have remained the same, power and processing capability-wise, the price has dropped and fantastic bundles have been available, including the v1.1 PS VR HMD that has a few minor ergonomic improvements but most importantly, the breakout box now supports 4K pass-through reducing the amount of cable swapping necessary for those with the relevant displays attached.

However what has been abundantly clear is that “mid-range” or whatever, the Sony PlayStation is easily out-selling the PC VR counterparts hand-over-fist, no matter what the perceived level of quality. With exclusives like RE7, Skyrim and a couple more, console gamers are keen to get their hands on the hardware (although with 70M PS4s and only 2M PS VRs, that’s still a pretty poor attachment rate overall, based on possibilities.) (A+)

Prediction 8: Social VR spaces will continue to be affected by harassment of users but improvements to avatars & facial representation will help reduce (+/-)

There have been flurries of stories about harassment in social VR spaces but also a lot more awareness of the potential issues and how to design for and manage it when it does happen. Oculus dedicated a couple of hours of talks and discussion about social spaces and designing for users at OC4 and many social VR applications have had significant investment of money, time and employees to ensure their growth and popularity doesn’t exceed the capabilities of ensuring they are welcoming for all.

AltspaceVR was bought by Microsoft, after the lights had seemingly gone off. VRChat was bought by HTC Vive. Bigscreen received over $11M investment and has recently revealed a partnership with Paramount to show Top Gun in 3D as well as supporting more than 4 users in a room. High Fidelity has continued to grow and receive investment. Sansar similarly so (interestingly these two are founded by alternative Second Life / Linden Labs founders so are somewhat in competition).

Looking back, I can’t remember what I had read or was trying to imply by the second part of the prediction so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — the technology is being used for medical purposes currently, see Emteq for example. (B-)

Prediction 9: The first $100m dev cost VR game will be announced for release in 2019, firmly bringing the industry inline with AAA dev costs/times (+)

Earlier on in the year there was discussion around how much Robo Recall cost to create after talking to Tim Sweeney, following on from an earlier comment by Mark Rein to Wired, with Road to VR estimating how $10M could be spent, via some fairly basic assumptions. To the best of my knowledge, game dev costs are still fairly secretive and even with a fairly open and communicative VR community, budgets aren’t widely discussed or revealed. However some gamers are still of the belief that creating a game is easy, takes very little time using off-the-shelf components and code for mechanics and throwing things together in Unity, and costs next to nothing. Some openness would likely help reduce this mindset perhaps, or maybe not…

Oculus (or Jason Rubin anyway) has recently said wants to see the first VR MMO and suggested there’s budget available to assist with the creation of this (there is already OrbusVR) but having come from a MMO development background, $100M+ is a realistic budget but perhaps my timeframes were out somewhat (possible for an alpha in 2019 if development started in 2017).

With the release of the Steven Spielberg adaptation of the VR YA sci-fi book ‘Ready Player One’ in 2018, perhaps the publisher desire for a VR MMO will grow but ultimately, like F2P and IAP for VR, there needs to be a considerably larger install base in order for there to be even barely enough players to populate the servers and keep the money rolling in post-launch. Many PC MMOs switched from subscription to F2P in order to survive, and most didn’t anyway. Whilst an MMO seems to be the ultimate VR fantasy (or sci-fi *sic) for many, it seems the hardware uptake will have to accelerate greatly before becoming viable. It’s a chicken and egg — the money and development needs to happen now but the chances of that happening are slim with the current investor and financial feeling around the VR hardware (if you’re to believe the recent spate of negative press articles anyway). (C+)

Prediction 10: The PC VR community will continue fight over Rift / Vive superiority as it grows, despite marginal differences. Fanbois gonna fanboi (-)

Perhaps it’s just because I’ve mostly given up going to Reddit this year but it seems to have settled down between camps, with less agro between PC VR and PS VR and Rift and Vive owners. PS VR owners seem to be very happy with their lot, a number of exclusives and games keeping them entertained. PC VR has few platform exclusives with many titles being multi-platform across Oculus and Steam and allowing multiplayer aspects to work with each across the divide. The exclusives that are available can be subverted with tools like ReVive or can make do with janky Oculus Touch support in Fallout 4 VR for now. Personally I just want to see Skyrim on PC VR. (C-)

So all in all not bad I think and 2017, whilst many spell doom and gloom for the industry, was a great interim year for the platforms. Mature, full games released on all devices, some of them from well-known AAA studios and titles, new devices came out, prices fell, over 1M hardware units were sold in a quarter (hopefully that will sustain beyond just sales and Black Friday holiday shopping etc), and whilst not exploding at the rate that analysts predicted at the start of 2016, I look forward to 2018 with a positive mindset that VR is going to be fine, isn’t going anywhere, isn’t a fad nor will it fail.

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Sam Watts

Content Partnerships Lead at HTC Vive // Viveport, living the xR life — follow me on Twitter @vr_sam