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What Will It Take For VR Get A Christmas Boom?

As we hurtle towards the 2016 holiday season, it’s worth taking stock of the state of the virtual reality market. While VR hasn’t quite cracked into the mainstream, it’s hard to deny it’s making good headway.

The pop-up kiosk strategies employed by both HTC and Sony and numerous appearances by the technology in cultural venues like late night talk-shows have worked to re-establish VR not as the passing gimmick it was several decades ago but as a cutting-edge product worth your attention.

Smartphone VR has proved a major asset for the category as a whole. When companies like LG and Samsung pack VR into their flagship devices, it helps legitimize the idea of VR as a standalone product.

One VR developer told ChannelNews, “Last year, [the] majority of the time, when I mentioned VR to anyone I had to explain what it was and how it worked. This year I [can] mention the Rift or the Vive and majority of them now understand what it is.”

With Samsung shipping more than a million GearVR headsets and Google’s securing five times that in Cardboard VR sales.It’s become clear that the low end of virtual reality is as valuable as the high one.

With all three of the high-end players in the VR space – Oculus, HTC and Sony – having now brought their respective headsets to market, it’s quickly becoming clear what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the tapping into the latent commercial potential of the tech.

When it comes to HTC, it’s clear we’re talking about the former more-so than the latter.

It’s telling that for all the vague promises surrounding virtual reality tech, the value attached to the HTC Vive comes across so very clearly. By most – if not all – observable metrics, the Vive is offering a more-advanced and immersive VR experience than its competitors and they’ve supported both room-scale and precise movement tracking from day on. 

Their partnership with Valve Corp has also proved a savvy one that’s effectively opened a door to their audience of 126 million players and a gateway for the developers creating the content that’s set to seize the possibilities presented.

With the Vive quickly recognized by early adopters as the preeminent, premium VR experience on offer, it’s no surprise that the platform’s commercial viability has proved both strong and consistent.

HTC sold 15,000 Vive units within the first ten minutes on sale and have continued to rack up almost 150,000 in sales since then. For a new product in an expensive and niche category, those numbers certainly put HTC ahead of their rivals – particularly Oculus.

Despite being an early front-runner for the platform, Facebook’s Oculus Rift has slipped since coming to market in March.

While the company shipped close to 175,000 development kits for the Rift across 2014 and 2015, the consumer version of the product appears to have been hamstrung since.

Roadtovr.com estimated that as of July, just 39,000 Oculus Rift units had been connected to Valve’s SteamVR service. While the actual sales of Oculus are likely to be higher, they aren’t likely to be that much higher – an overwhelming proportion of VR’s early adopters are gamers and Valve’s SteamVR is one of the biggest online outlets available. 

Part of the reason for this is that the Rift has failed to find the same widespread retail presence as both the Vive and Sony’s PSVR have. Its early popularity definitely laid the foundations for the modern VR experiences consumers are finding in the Vive and PSVR but the Rift itself is still seen as a high-end enthusiast product. It’s seen as the start of true VR but, as we move forward, this merit has begun to morph into the perception that the Rift is obsolete.

On top of this, Oculus have also been hit by both logistical snafus and image problem after image problem – diluting the positive word of mouth that helped the headset originally garner $2.4 million through crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

It’s never a good sign when your VP of product defends the lack of Oculus sales figures by saying the VR market is “far from being saturated,” and then diverting attention to the more successful product of a competitor.

In comparison, Sony have been widely transparent about the sales of PSVR. Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Jim Ryan is on record saying that pre-order sales for PS VR have been in the hundreds of thousands and tech analyst company Telsyte has predicted there will be 110,000 sold this year in Australia.

This lines up with early sales numbers coming out of the PSVR’s overseas launches. Reports say Sony racked up 50,000 in first week sales in Japan.

The Playstation brand has given Sony a lot of advantages over its competitors in terms of awareness and positioning. For many, it’ll likely be treated as a confident extension of the Playstation family of products rather than an wholesale new experience – making it appear a more secure purchase. 

However, if anything will help push VR to a Christmas boom beyond word of mouth, it’s the content. While the Vive, Rift and PSVR are only just coming to market in 2016, both established and independent tech players have been developing content for these platforms for several years now.

Though a certain lack-of-polish is agiven, the quality of the launch content showing up on these platforms are far higher than it would be otherwise – and to a lot of audiences that will likely prove a key factor. If VR doesn’t look as seamless as it’s been promised to be, it’ll fall flat for mainstream audiences.

Consumer technology is often a cult at the altar of simplicity and if VR can successfully sell itself as such, this holiday season won’t just separate the wheat from the chaff – it’ll see the category cement itself for years to come.

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