For an essentially visual platform, VR sure makes a lot of noise. Oculus promises to whisk its users to ‘places they can’t reach’ (the same could be said about novelty back-scratchers - ed.) and VR’s potential is being discussed in everything from medical treatment to porn. The only slight problem is no one seemed to be buying the bloody things.
‘The VR cycle is dead’ lamented TechCrunch in August. Facebook-owned Oculus hadn’t released sales figures, HTC (who also didn't reveal figures) were slashing prices and the conversation had already begun to move onto augmented reality. ‘Come back in five years,’ said a veteran game designer when asked about the potential of VR at E3.
Perhaps not. Yesterday Sony announced some VR ‘milestones’, which place it atop the VR tree in terms of sales figures and provide a template for how to shift units. Despite being out for just over a year, Playstation VR (PSVR) has sold over 2 million headsets, half of them coming since July. To put it in perspective, PSVR took 49% of all VR headset sales in Q3 compared with 21% for Oculus Rift and 16% for HTC Vive, according to market analyst firm Canalys.
So has Sony actually found some commercial potential in VR? We took a leap into the immersive world to find out:
There is a market for VR - once people know what it is
‘We need more consumers to understand what VR is,’ admitted Eric Lempel, senior vice-president at Sony Interactive Entertainment and head of PlayStation Network. VR is unfamiliar and expensive, so Sony has given prospective customers the chance to try a VR headset with their Playstation model for two weeks before deciding if they want to purchase it. VR demos, meanwhile, can be found everywhere from train stations to comic conventions.
Lempel says that once the consumer is given the chance to experience VR, many of the stigmas associated with it will fall away.
It helps when you’ve already got fans
Sony’s VR success has come as the Playstation 4 crossed the 70 million units sold mark. Slashing up to £100 off models over black Friday made for Sony’s biggest biggest sales period in the the console brand’s 23-year history, according to Lempel.
By keeping the headset relatively affordable (£350 to Oculus’s £400 and HTC Vive’s £600) and making it an extension of one of the world’s most popular consoles, Sony has clearly positioned the PSVR as a way to make the existing gaming experience better, rather than an entirely new entity.
With 150 titles already on the platform, including big brands like Skyrim and, in future, Doom, there is enough for existing Playstation users to be curious. Sony has worked hard on converting that curiosity into cash, and more importantly at this stage, generating buzz.
The industry needs to ask what consumers want
Sony leads the market because it understood that giving VR could be compatible as an extension of an already popular gaming system with brands that already had a strong fanbase. It’s telling that in a recent YouGov survey, 44% of VR users surveyed said that they owned games for their headsets.
‘The constraints to growth in VR have not been addressed,’ said YouGov research director Tom Fuller. ‘I don’t see industry-wide efforts to address these.’ Fuller argues that despite a 90% public awareness of VR, the industry is not focusing enough on what consumers actually want.
In the same survey, this time with a general audience, all respondents showed a desire for content beyond gaming. Other features respondents wanted included Film/TV (36%), training (24%) and strangely, virtual house tours (25%). These are all things the industry is latching onto, with deals being inked with film distributors and educational institutions.
But there are still plenty of barriers remaining. Price was the largest sticking point (56%), but issues such as isolation (23%), the platform being unrealistic (17%) and the risk of fatigue/sickness (17%) all play contribute to consumer scepticism. Reducing that stigma by offering consumers the chance to try out the stuff and tapping into a latent potential, as Playstation has done, might just been enough to make VR a reality.