Virtual reality may not be ready for prime time just yet

Among the most-hyped gadgets at this year's Consumer Electronics Show are virtual reality headsets. But according to CBC technology columnist Dan Misener, VR might not be ready for prime time just yet.

Big buzz at CES, but price and lack of content may prevent VR headsets from going mainstream this year

A man tries out the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo. CBC Radio's Dan Misener argues the technology isn't ready for a major consumer breakthrough just yet. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

Among the most-hyped gadgets at this year's Consumer Electronics Show — the annual major trade show in Las Vegas — are virtual reality headsets.

But according to CBC technology columnist Dan Misener, VR might not be ready for prime time just yet.

How big a deal is VR at this year's Consumer Electronics Show?

It's a very big deal, with the gaming and virtual reality section much larger than in past years. There will be 46 different exhibitors showing off different VR technologies.

The Consumer Technology Association, which organizes CES, has forecast 1.2 million VR headset sales for this year.

Pre-orders for the Oculus Rift virtual reality head-mounted display begin during this year's Consumer Electronics Show. (TAVES Consumer Electronics Show)
A big chunk of those headsets are expected to be the Oculus Rift, produced by the VR company which Facebook bought for $2 billion US last year. 

Pre-orders for the Oculus Rift headset begin during this year's CES.

Virtual reality is also coming to console gaming, with Sony launching Playstation VR later this year.

All of which means 2016 is shaping up to be the year of mass-market virtual reality. And that means people will be looking to this year's CES for some indication as to whether or not people will buy VR hardware as it becomes available.

What kind of computer do I need in order to use a VR headset?

A pretty powerful one, in fact.

Recently, Nvidia — which makes graphics chips — said that very few computers have enough power to actually drive a VR display.

Toronto VR designer Stephan Tanguay agrees.

"You need a pretty decent machine," he said. "All the components that you probably are going to need are on the very new side. So unless you built a PC in the past six months, specifically for gaming, [Nvidia] are right."

Nvidia estimates that about 13 million home computers this year will support VR — which is fewer than one per cent of the computers in use around the world.

So while there's a huge amount of buzz and hype around virtual reality, there are relatively few computers that can support it.

How has the developer community reacted?

VR designer Blair Renaud, who is making a cyberpunk game called Technolust for the Oculus Rift, said he's not worried about Nvidia's estimate that "only" 13 million computers could possibly run his game in the next year.

"I tell you, if I could sell 13 million copies of something, I'd be quite happy," he said. "That's plenty."

It's seemed for a while now that a major breakthrough in consumer adoption of VR has been "just" around the corner" — and designers across Canada, like Renaud, are betting the market will grow significantly in the next few years.

Beyond the technical aspects, what other challenges does virtual reality face?

Price is a big factor.

If VR headsets are going to become a truly mass-market piece of consumer electronics, people have to be able to afford them. Most VR headset makers have not yet said how much they will be charging for the devices.

Another major challenge is creating things to use the hardware for, says Blair Renaud.

"We need a lot more content," he said. "And we need to figure out what the right content is... what people want to play. What's a good VR game?"

Will 2016 be the year VR goes mainstream?

2016 is probably not the year for mass adoption of VR.

It's still very much in the "early adopter" phase, and games and gamers will push things forward.

Hardcore gamers are the people who most likely already have a powerful computer that can drive a VR headset.

But 2016 is going to be the year VR headsets will become much more widely available. And that means more people will have the opportunity to try a VR headset.

So consumer awareness is going to go up significantly, but consumer adoption — if it happens — will need to wait a few more years, until prices to come down and the catalog of content gets bigger.

And that, Renaud says, is where the immediate problem in adoption may lie.

It's hard, he says, to convince people to buy a VR headset if there's nothing to watch or play on it. And it's hard to convince developers and producers to make content for a device that nobody owns yet.

"It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem as far as content goes."


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.


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