A year ago, if you asked what the most popular virtual reality headset was, the answer would probably be the Oculus Rift; but a year from now it will almost certainly be Sony’s PlayStation VR.
Despite not hitting early – and fairly outlandish – sales estimates, the PSVR is on track to becoming the best-selling VR headset in the world in just a matter of months, smashing the records of both the more expensive Rift and HTC Vive.
As a result, what Sony decides to do with its virtual reality headset – and what content is offered on it – is likely to have a significant impact on how VR develops for many, many years to come. For now, however, VR is very much in its infancy.
“It feels like the first time Edison recorded sounds on a wax cylinder: that’s where we are as far as VR is concerned,” said Shawn Layden, chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios, at a talk at Web Summit. “There are the things that VR provides: if you completely buy into the narrative that you’re in, you’ll become the character that you want to be, which is perilous stretching in some circumstances.”
What to expect from virtual reality
2017 is set to be a defining period for virtual reality. As developers experiment with different ideas, the industry will begin to find its own specific language and set of conventions, in much the same way that the early 3D games drove the development of many of the standards of gaming that we know today.
“The tricky thing about VR, and what makes it so exciting for all of us, is it’s a completely new medium; it’s a place where no one’s gone before,” explained Layden. “And we’re still trying to develop the grammar, the syntax, the vocabulary to describe the various experiences.”
VR will in time find its own style and conventions that are completely separate from conventional console games.
“Once you put the headset on and you fall into that VR world, right now I think we can better leverage people’s desire and disbelief as it’s actually happening, but over the next 12, 18, 24 months we are going to actually find out what runs that experience,” said Layden.
“Right now there’s something happening in VR which could be easily replicated from a console experience, but in 12 or 18 months were going to find things in VR that can only be realised in VR and that’s when the whole thing changes around.”
This of course means that many of the VR games that are released over the next year will be highly experimental, and will likely vary far more than their non-headset-requiring counterparts.
“We’re at the nascent stage; we’re at the entry stage. That’s why if you look at the marketplace, VR experiences a real gamut from family friendly job simulator games all the way up to EVE: Valkyrie or an X-Wing simulator my friends at EA are making,” he added.
“It’s all out there and for the next 12 to 18 months you’re going to see a very, very wide palette of different experiences, because we’re all trying to figure out exactly what [works in VR].
“The answer will reveal itself probably in the next 24 months. But what I’m going to do running the studios inside PlayStation is to continue to challenge that, to continue to bring new ideas to the market, realise them within our hardware.”
Virtual reality is ready for the world
Layden fiercely rejected suggestions that the current rise of virtual reality was just another fad, like the era two decades ago that cemented the idea – but sadly not the reality – of virtual reality technology.
“I think that 20 years ago all the excitement around the virtual boy and the adjacent technologies to them were giving the description to the desire for something that delivers that bold, promising, new experience,” he said. “And in the 20, 25 years since that time we’ve come to the point where three things have happened.
20 years ago the world was ready for VR, VR simply wasn’t ready for the world
“One is just the raw horsepower on some platforms like the PS4. Its processing, the CPU and what it can deliver in real-time. Number two is display technology. I give a lot of credit to the mobile phone industry for actually pushing that forward and how much display resolution and screen power we get – the mobile phone, the way it delivers all that technology in that, is insane.
“And number three is really the cellular market; it’s the ability to mass-produce that level of high-tech experience at the price point which is available to everybody in the world.”
In other words, while 20 years ago the world was ready for VR, VR simply wasn’t ready for the world. But two decades later, the technology has finally been able to catch up with our dreams. And it’s not the only thing that’s changed; the world of gaming itself is also very different.
“I think now we can put our hands in our pockets and say there’s movies, music and gaming: those are the three pillars of entertainment,” said Layden.
“I think mobile gaming and tablet gaming has done a lot to normalise or standardise the idea of gaming. It has become something which is truly accepted.”
Virtual reality at the movies
While 2017 and 2018 are likely to see the release of virtual reality games and experiences that come to define aspects of the medium for years to come, VR is set to see development and improvement for far longer.
At present, for example, VR is suitable for experiencing in short bursts, in a manner Layden likens to arcade gaming; and that isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future.
“I think it’s going to be a long time before you’re going to have a Final Fantasy XVII experience in VR for 75 hours,” summarised Layden.
However, the area we are likely to see VR develop the most beyond the next few years is not in games, but in movies. With a few exceptions, movie executives are still some years behind their gaming counterparts in terms of applying their medium to VR, meaning we’ll likely have to wait a good while before seeing the latest blockbuster in virtual reality.
“Earlier in the year, before we announced the launch plans for PSVR, because of an association with our sister company Sony Pictures, we had the opportunity to introduce VR to a number of Hollywood TV showrunners,” explained Layden. “To a person the reaction when they took the headset of was wow, wow oh my God, and their point coming back to me talking about it was virtual reality completely explodes the idea of narrative.
“How does the narrative work when the viewer has complete free agency in that world? How do I tell my story when I don’t know from second to second where a person is looking? It’s caused a lot of excitement and frustrations along the road, and a lot of head scratching: how do we use this media platform to tell our stories?
“The answer is not coming this year or maybe not even next year, but over time I think you’ll find completely new ideas and experiences with VR as a medium.”