Virtual reality, one year out: What went right, what didn't

By Brad Chacos Dec 23rd 2016
Virtual reality, one year out: What went right, what didn't

VR finally became reality in 2016, and like any birth, it was both messy and magical.

After years of teases, tantalizing promises, and Kickstarter campaigns, virtual reality finally became actual reality in 2016, with VR’s mere existence thrusting the entire PC industry into glorious, wonderful turmoil. Despite being around for just a handful of months, virtual reality has already inspired totally new genres of computers, wormed its way deep into Windows, and sent the price of graphics cards plummeting.

Not too shabby for VR’s first real year on the streets, though the implementations could still use some fine-tuning. Let’s look back at how this wild new frontier blossomed in 2016.

The birth of consumer virtual reality

From the very start of 2016 it was clear that the dawn of proper PC-powered VR had arrived. You could see evidence of this fact all over CES 2016 in January, where EVGA introduced a specialized graphics card designed to fit VR headset ergonomics; Nvidia rolled out a VR certification program; and seemingly every booth boasted some sort of virtual-reality hook, from VR treadmills to VR porn and VR Everest climbs (the latter two being mind-blowing in their own ways).

The PC world was ready. But virtual reality itself wasn’t, at least until the Oculus Rift’s big consumer launch later that spring.

oculus rift Adam Patrick Murray

The Oculus Rift.

Well, big in theory. While PCWorld praised the Oculus Rift in its review—virtual reality was here, and it was magical!—the launch was far from perfect. The rumbling began in the run-up to the headset’s release, with Rift’s $600 launch price far exceeding the $250 to $500 range that Oculus higher-ups had teased repeatedly. Once it actually launched, the headset was plagued by hardware shortages and significant shipment delays, which didn’t go over well at all.

But the biggest problem for the Rift was that even at launch its days already felt numbered—not a vibe you want from $600 hardware. The Rift was designed primarily as a seated VR experience, with a controller in your hands. By the time it launched on March 28, enthusiasts and industry press had already spent time playing with the SteamVR-powered HTC Vive, which used made-for-VR controllers and dedicated tracking stations to enable room-scale VR experiences that let you wander around and actually touch things. After trying Vive, going back to the Rift’s sedentary experience felt far less satisfying.

htc vive Adam Patrick Murray

The HTC Vive.

And the HTC/Valve duo didn’t waste any time capitalizing on its advantage. The HTC Vive launched on April 5, roughly a week after the Oculus Rift, and immediately seized the crown as PCWorld’s preferred VR solution.

Despite that, we recommend passing on the Rift and the Vive, and for very good reason. While VR can be nothing short of awe-inspiring, these first-gen products also have some obvious flaws.

Prices and PCs

Man, virtual-reality headsets are expensive.

Oculus Touch

Oculus Rift with its Touch controllers.

That’s to be expected with bleeding-edge hardware, but $600 for the Oculus Rift or $800 for the HTC Vive puts them firmly in the “one percent” category. The recent release of Oculus’s $200 Touch controllers drove the cost of a full Rift setup to the Vive’s level, or even more if you want kinda-sorta room-scale experiences and need an extra sensor. VR experiences tend to be high-priced and relatively short-lived compared to traditional PC games. This is not a cheap hobby.

That priciness was exacerbated by the need to connect these headsets to a pretty powerful PC—that cost of which was roughly $1,000 to $1,500 at the time of the headsets' launch. Fortunately, while the Vive and Rift themselves have stayed at the same lofty prices, the cost of a computer to run them absolutely plunged as the year carried on.

The plunge began with the launch of AMD’s Radeon RX 480, which revolutionized what’s possible with a $200 graphics card. Before its release, VR-capable graphics cards cost nearly twice that amount. (Nvidia quickly followed suit with the $250 GeForce GTX 1060.) Jumping forward two full technological generations paid major dividends for graphics cards.

radeon rx 480 Brad Chacos

The AMD Radeon RX 480.

Software tricks helped democratize VR just as much. At the Oculus Connect conference in October, the company revealed a new feature dubbed “Asynchronous Spacewarp” that used technical tricks to drive the barrier to entry for Rift VR way, way down—all the way to an AMD AM4 or Intel Core i3-6100 processor, and a GeForce GTX 960 graphics card. In March, a Rift-ready PC cost at least $1,000; after Oculus Connect, Rift-ready PCs started at $500, and as I write this there’s a Best Buy promotion offering a full PC and the Rift itself for $999.

Hot damn, prices plunged fast. And another pesky PC VR problem is already in everybody’s sights.

Wired woes

The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift both drive very high-fidelity gaming experiences, and headsets need to be physically tethered to your PC in order to work. That kind of sucks. It’s all too easy to trip over the thick cables while you’re wandering around the room ensconced in a virtual world, or to twist and turn so much that the cord eventually jerks your head back.

omen x vr pc

HP’s Omen X VR PC.

That (sometimes literal) headache inspired the birth of a whole new class of gaming PCs—ones that you wear on your back. You’re still wired up, sure, but those wires travel with you instead of getting tangled between your feet. Zotac, MSI, Alienware, and HP have all revealed backpack PCs of various designs, though none have actually hit the street yet.

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The standalone Oculus “Santa Cruz” prototype.

As nifty as they are, however, backpack PCs feel like a stopgap solution—a fix to a problem that will disappear when more robust wireless display technologies or more potent mobile graphics arrive. And you can already see that wireless future on the horizon, with Oculus testing a fully self-contained mobile Rift prototype pictured above and HTC backing a $220 add-on kit that makes the Vive wireless.

Beyond PCs

While powerful PC-based VR experiences may be tethered, the more modest world of phone-driven mobile VR has already left cords far behind.

daydream primary Jason Cross

Google’s Daydream View.

Samsung’s Gear VR headset (which only works with Samsung Galaxy phones) blazed the Android VR trail, while Google’s low-cost Cardboard brought it to the masses. In late 2016 Google stomped into the Gear VR’s turf with Daydream VR, an Android-centric initiative that brings premium mobile VR to the entire ecosystem rather than Samsung’s phones alone.

Daydream centers on a trio of pillars: powerful phones, Daydream VR headsets, and Android Nougat’s new VR features. While Google’s own Daydream View headset and Pixel phone kicked off the program, Daydream isn’t its alone. HTC, LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Asus, Alcatel, Lenovo, and yes, even Samsung have pledged to create Daydream mobile devices.

mshololens mixedrealityspace 08516 3x2 rgb Microsoft

A Microsoft rendering shows simulated HoloLens apps.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is kind of a mix of PC and mobile VR, while also a different beast entirely. It’s a portable, fully self-contained system that doesn’t need to connect to a PC, but HoloLens utilizes augmented reality, not virtual reality. Virtual reality plops you in fully realized virtual worlds; augmented reality, as the name implies, augments the real world with overlaid objects, such as a Minecraft world sprouting from your coffee table or a Skype video chat appearing on your wall.

Microsoft still hasn’t revealed details about when (or if) HoloLens will be available to consumer users, or how much it would cost, but deep-pocketed developers and enterprise users can already pick up the headset for a cool $3,000.

The future

Pricey HoloLens headset aren’t Microsoft’s only foray into VR. The massive Windows 10 Creators Update next spring will bake augmented reality features much, much more deeply into the flagship PC operating system, and it’ll be accompanied by an army of new Windows 10 VR headsets at launch—headsets that will start at just $300 and run on surprisingly modest PCs. Meanwhile, Intel and Microsoft’s Project Evo partnership aims to change how computers “think, see, and hear,” with a specific goal of driving mixed reality forward.

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Players enjoy a VR experience at HTC’s Viveland arcade in Taiwan. 

If 2016 was birth of a virtual-reality revolution, look for 2017 to be a year of VR refinement. Witness the new, Oculus Touch-esque Vive controllers that Valve already began to tease, and bookmark the holiday 2017 launch of Microsoft’s powerful Xbox Scorpio console—which could very possibly leverage the Windows 10 Creators Update to run the Oculus Rift or Windows 10 VR headsets as a counter to Sony’s surprisingly okay PlayStation VR.

Next year, VR games should only get better as developers gain more experience... if they can navigate the complicated world of consumer expectations and discover what people really want from the medium, that is. The cost of VR-capable PCs will only keep going down. Expect augmented reality to continue making inroads in car tech. The Vive and Rift may even get price cuts! Heck, with enough advances, 2017 may be the year PCWorld officially recommends you buy a VR headset.

Or it could all come crashing down like previous virtual-reality attempts. (Remember Sega VR?) Living on the bleeding edge may be expensive and exciting, but it’s not always a sure bet—though with so many of tech’s biggest names spending billions on virtual reality, it’s hard to imagine this latest push fizzling completely. Time will tell.

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