It’s been going on for a couple of years now. At first, 2015 was touted to be the year of VR, that passed onto the year 2016 and now we are nine months into 2017, but the VR phenomenon is yet to catch on. And it’s not just India, but the entire world as a whole that’s staying away from VR. Before VR became the poster child of content producers and hardware manufacturers, the 3D phenomenon was the most promising. Every mainstream television manufacturer had jumped on board and brought out several 3D capable TVs but the content simply wasn’t up to the mark. The sheer amount of investment needed for mainstream content producers such as sports, news and TV shows, to produce 3D content alongside the existing programming schedule did not work out. Heck, we don’t even see that many 3D TVs in the market any more. It’s all about curved panels and higher colour depth these days as 10-bit becomes more popular. So why is VR lagging behind?
The obvious thing is that there is a bottleneck which is impeding the adoption of VR across the board and I’m more inclined towards placing the blame on hardware manufacturers for not moving as fast as they can. There is a significant amount of investment in R&D that has led to the production of the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Playstation VR. And the companies behind these gadgets want to make good on their investment and they’re doing so by charging a massive premium on the headsets that they make. The fact that both Oculus and HTC were able to cut prices for $200 on both their devices attests to this massive markup. Honestly, I see why any technology company under the sun would want to charge such a premium for their products. On one end, they’re charging a lot of money for their headsets and on the other end they’re actively wooing content producers with funding to build an ecosystem for VR. Facebook just pledged another $250 million, thus, making their total pledge a cool $500 million. Just a year back, in March 2016, there were only 30 VR game titles in the market that could be played and were not in any “Early Access” state. Cut short to July 2017 and we have more than 500 VR titles. Most of which are very pedestrian but nevertheless, the efforts are paying off.
While the amount of content is certainly on an upswing, the pricing of these headsets has ensured that these titles remain outside the purview of most gamers. So it’s still the early adopters who’re buying these headsets. Us Indians can completely forget about buying the HTC Vive officially from Amazon because it still costs ₹76,990 despite the price cut. It used to cost ₹92,990 before the generous drop. The Rift costs ₹62,968 and the PS VR with camera costs ₹39,692 and needs a PlayStation 4 to run it. The overall expenditure to own and enjoy VR has remained so high that these things are relegated to trade shows and showroom exhibits. What seems to be the game-changer is Microsoft’s range of Mixed-Reality headsets which are slated to be launched towards December this year. And Microsoft has done the right thing by partnering with Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP and Lenovo so that each manufacturer can build a mixed reality headset of their own. Basically, Microsoft built a technology, licensed it out to multiple brands and thereby is building an ecosystem with competition inherently built in. The effects of which were noticed when Acer was the first to announce their Mixed Reality headset for a mere $299. Compare that to the Rift and Vive’s $699 and $799 launch prices and we see what could be a winner.
The PC space is one half of the VR phenomenon, it’s the better experience but one that it matched with an equally bigger price tag. Mobiles on the other hand hold a significant advantage. They’re seen as a necessity these days. Though a phone capable of VR is certainly seen as a luxury. The key players in the mobile segment are the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream. Both, really big companies with VR headsets that are way affordable than the PC market. However, the affordability isn’t because Samsung and Google were struck by the philanthropy bug, it’s because these are using more power efficient tech that don’t hold enough horsepower. Since mobile VR is the more economical alternative, it stands to reason that if at all VR is going to catch up and become mainstream, it should be these mobile VR headsets that lead the revolution. The latest statistics, however, aren’t that encouraging. In a recent study by Newzoo, it was revealed that of the 2.8 billion smartphones out there, only 0.2% are even capable of running Google DayDream and 6.6% are capable of running Samsung Gear VR. That’s a total of 191.1 million devices globally that are VR ready. And to make things appear even more bleak, not all who get these VR ready devices do so with the intention of buying a DayDream or Gear VR. *sigh*
So while the PC market has Microsoft to look forward to, as the one brand that will finally democratise VR, the smartphone market still looks bleak. India being one of the largest, if not the largest, smartphone markets in the world still sees the greatest demand for budget smartphones. I know that because of the overwhelming amount of Internet traffic that we get for articles through such non-VR-ready devices. So I still have hopes that the PC market will be the first to adopt greater numbers of VR headsets post this December but the mobile market is still waiting for that one brand to come forth and lead the charge. A brand which would offer flagship level hardware without a massive price premium. Someone like the original OnePlus, not its current me-too avatar. Or it could even arise from the SoC manufacturers should they offer their flagship SnapDragons or MediaTeks for low prices, just to get the VR market the push that it needs. Till then, I don’t think the smartphone market will adopt VR the way it should have already.
This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.