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The state of VR before E3 2018

How to sell a new technology that’s no longer new

If you want to buy a VR headset, you have plenty to choose from. So many, in fact, that the choices can be daunting. Do you want something portable or something tethered? Something inexpensive or the best you can get?

The big question, and the one the market still hasn’t answered, is how many people want a VR headset at all. The technology is here and rapidly maturing; hardware is becoming less expensive and more capable at a good pace.

But even that presents an issue, because the perception among people I speak with often seems to be that, if there is always something a little bit better and a little bit cheaper on the horizon, why jump in now? Every platform has as many drawbacks as it has features, and no one seems to know what a feature-complete VR platform would even include, or when it will get here. That situation may be making potential buyers skittish.

The perfect VR system might be something that is:

  • Portable
  • Inexpensive
  • Ultra-high resolution
  • Offering full room-scale tracking for the headset
  • Including reliable motion controls that work in full 3D space
  • Able to be taken on and off pretty much instantly, without messing up hair or makeup

Needless to say, that system doesn’t exist yet, and it sure as hell won’t be announced at E3. But the mainstream has been fed a very specific idea of what virtual reality is and should be from years of pop culture, and anything that doesn’t deliver on those traits is probably going to be seen as a letdown. People walk out of movies like Ready Player One interested in VR, but the only platforms available to them don’t even have a working solution for walking around a virtual world.

The software question

On the other hand, the hardware that exists today is selling, although very few companies want to talk about specific numbers. The challenge right now is releasing games that keep people in the headsets for extended periods of time, games that go up against the best of what you’re playing on traditional displays.

“The first round of software had a very specific purpose, and that was to, quote unquote, fill a store,” Oculus’ Jason Rubin told Polygon. “In other words, if you walk into a clothing store and there’s one pair of jeans, that’s not a clothing store, and that’s probably not a store you’re going to want to return to. So we wanted to have a diversity of offerings so people could come see some of the things VR could offer. And I would say, in a lot of cases, that first generation [of games] were demos. They were short, they were unique ... but the community writ large would look at them and say, ‘This is neat, where is this going?’”

He was speaking in context of Stormland a recently-announced big-budget title from Insomniac Games that hopes to offer a deeper, longer-term gaming experience than most VR titles — but crafting lengthier, more engrossing experiences has been a problem with the VR industry for a while now.

What I’m hoping for during E3, from every VR platform, is to see new games that can’t be done on a standard screen. The best way to sell VR hardware is to offer games that you can’t play any other way; something so good that people will be willing to invest in the hardware to play them.

Sony went hard on VR last year, and the PlayStation VR continues to offer one of the best VR libraries out there. The amount of VR representation likely to appear at its press conference this year may be an indication of how well that strategy worked out in 2017.

High-quality, low-cost VR is here, but it’s been here for years now. E3 2018 might offer us some clues about how the gaming industry sees VR, now that its existence isn’t a novelty. The hardware is here, even if it seems to be in a perpetual state of flux. Now what companies need to do is figure out how to sell it.