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I wouldn’t blame you for tuning out VR news in 2017. There was no string of huge hardware releases, like last year’s Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. The medium’s limits became clearer. For some people, VR reached a trough of irrelevance — stories about it were no longer conceptually fresh and fascinating, but they weren’t relevant to daily life yet, either.
Despite this, 2017 laid exciting groundwork for VR’s future. The biggest advance was arguably Windows Mixed Reality: a VR platform built into Microsoft’s Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, supporting headsets that don’t need external cameras or markers. Mixed Reality headsets and motion controllers still aren’t very comfortable or stylish. But their tracking feels remarkably smooth and accurate, and setup is easy — you can basically just plug the headset into a computer and get started.
High-end VR also got cheaper. Buying a VR-ready PC costs much less than it did last year, and all three major headsets got price cuts. The Vive went from $799 to $599, the Rift (with Touch controllers) dropped from $798 to $399, and Sony started including the formerly $59 tracking camera in its $399 PlayStation VR bundle.
Motion tracking — once an added luxury — became a standard part of VR in 2017. Samsung’s Gear VR added a small motion-control remote, following Google’s Daydream View, which launched at the very end of 2016. There are still plenty of touchpad or gamepad-based experiences, but hand tracking has helped cement VR as something that’s truly more than a fancy screen.
It wasn’t a bad year for VR experiences, even if some of the launches were relatively quiet. Daydream game Virtual Virtual Reality skewered VR “immersion” and the service economy. Rock Band VR created a rhythm game system based on chords instead of beat-matching. Arktika.1 and Lone Echo offered high-production, story-based VR experiences. Miyubi became one of the first 360-degree videos to feature a film-like narrative arc. Oculus’ Dear Angelica was gorgeous, poignant, and unprecedented.
Unfortunately, there’s still no sustainable market for VR entertainment, and developers rarely turn a profit. Major studio CCP dropped the headset requirement for its flagship game EVE Valkyrie, then pulled back from VR in a round of layoffs. Some of the most anticipated games of the year, like Vive and PlayStation VR versions of Doom, Fallout 4, and Skyrim, proved interesting but compromised. Film festivals have raised the bar for their burgeoning VR sections, but elsewhere, we’re still getting an overwhelming number of lightweight movie tie-in experiences.
Sony’s PlayStation VR headset sales exceeded expectations, with a respectable 2 million sold since launch last fall. Samsung confirmed it had shipped 5 million Gear VRs at the start of 2017, although some of these were handed out for free. But the Rift and Vive are still niche among consumers, despite the price drops. Google’s VR program was in near-stasis for the first half of 2017, until Samsung finally added Daydream support to its phones. And a couple of projects got canceled in 2017, like Intel’s “merged reality” device Project Alloy and a standalone HTC Daydream headset.
All available VR headsets have major drawbacks. Even the most comfortable designs are clunky. Most only offer games that are best enjoyed in short doses. Discounts can’t fix these things — we need a new generation of lighter and simpler hardware. Early Windows Mixed Reality devices don’t fit that bill. While Oculus announced two new headsets that might get closer, called Oculus Go and Santa Cruz, they’re not out until 2018.
After a year of consumer VR, there are lots of projects with strong fan bases, including social networks, art tools, and competitive games. But no experience is overwhelmingly popular enough to draw crowds of new users. Designers are better at preventing motion sickness, but it’s hard to eliminate the risk for everyone, and it’s a miserable experience that can easily turn someone off a game. Meanwhile, the VR tropes that once fascinated people are growing stale — creators chafed at the term “empathy machine,” and genres like VR wave shooters have gotten flooded with entries.
So, in short: the cost of VR — financial, logistical, and physiological — needs to come down. The quality of experiences needs to go up. That was true in 2016, and it’s still true now. But I’ve got a tentatively good feeling about 2018.
Final grade: C
The Verge 2017 report card: Virtual Reality
- Windows Mixed Reality is promising
- Lots of price drops
- Everybody loves touch controls!
- Overall experience is still uncomfortable
- No business model for VR content
- Real hype fatigue after 2016