Virtual reality has been prolific in the gaming industry since the 1980s, when Sega's Master System 3D glasses promised to take you inside a virtual world. The best, however, is yet to come.
The pressing question facing VR gaming concerns how high a price it can sustain. Yet in the longer term it’s all about Moore’s Law economics, content - and whether another currently absent tech titan will finally join the fray.When a $599 (about £415) launch retail price was announced for the Oculus Rift headset at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the reaction was nearly unanimous: “Too high!” Because it isn’t just about the headset. Coupling the Rift to a PC that can render titles with sufficient fidelity adds about $1,000 (£693).
Jason Paul, GM of chipmaker Nvidia’s Shield gaming arm, explained the computing challenges to VentureBeat late last year.
“If you look at your typical PC gaming experience, 90 per cent of the gamers out there play at 1080p (HD). For a smooth experience you don’t want to go below 30fps (frames per second),” he said. “Compare that to VR where the displays are about 2k (horizontal resolution of about 2,000 pixels), but you have to render closer to 3k, and you don’t want to go below 90fps. It’s about a sevenfold increase in raw performance to render for VR versus traditional PC gaming. You have to do that in less than 20 milliseconds response time, from head rotation to what shows up on your display.”
Nvidia is tweaking its Maxwell GPU architecture specifically for VR, upgrading software and drivers and building out an ecosystem - then add cost-down semiconductor economics. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, for his part, sees the Rift’s settled range as between $200 (£139) and $400 (£277). That all-in $1,600 (£1,110) is early-adopter pricing.
With parent company Facebook’s deep pockets, Oculus is suffering today’s blowback for first-mover advantage and, it hopes, capturing the love of the most hardcore gamers. After all, there is a format war already under way in VR headsets. HTC’s Vive (in partnership with Valve’s Steam gaming platform) and the Sony PlayStation VR (formerly Project Morpheus) will arrive soon. Google is looking for more from its Cardboard skunkworks.
Sony is Oculus’s biggest threat today. Its headset is compatible with the PlayStation 4. While VR-specified PCs are comparatively rare, the Japanese giant can market 36 million homes. At time of writing, PlayStation VR is due to launch imminently. Analysts expect Sony to price it aggressively.
Yet these are opening shots. Investment bank Piper Jaffray forecasts VR headset sales of only 12 million this year and many are likely to be cheaper units for use with smartphones, like the $99 Oculus-based Samsung Gear VR.
The real ramp-up, says Piper analyst Gene Munster, will come in 2020 when enough “compelling content” is available and, he believes, Apple will have entered VR, leveraging its huge installed base.
By then, two more rotations of Moore’s Law should also bring the necessary PC silicon prices to mass-market levels. At that point, it won’t necessarily be just the big boys who can gear up.