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The age of immersive consumer virtual reality is finally here, and just in time for Black Friday.
Today, Samsung officially launches Gear VR, its Oculus-powered virtual reality headset. Supplanting the $199 Innovator Edition, which was aimed at developers, the new $99 consumer device—which is lighter and more streamlined than the previous model—works in conjunction with any flagship Samsung smartphone and could very well introduce VR to hundreds of thousands of people.
"It’s a big moment for the broader consumer VR era," says Nick DiCarlo, Samsung's vice president and general manager for immersive products and virtual reality. Gear VR is "the only [immersive VR device] you’ll be able to walk into a store and buy this holiday season. It's really the birth of a new medium, and you always need a first day for a new medium, and [today] really is that day."
Virtual reality in one form or another has been around for decades, but the concept of it as a consumer technology is only about three years old. Starting with the creation of the Oculus Rift in 2012 and continuing through the unveiling of Google’s Cardboard VR mount last year, the technology has slowly but surely been working its way into the public’s consciousness, even though few people have had the opportunity to actually buy VR hardware.
According to a recent report by analysts at Greenlight VR and Touchstone Research, 80% of people are somewhat aware of virtual reality technology, but just 10% say they know a lot about it. Yet according to a study by Digi-Capital, VR is expected to generate $30 billion in annual revenue by 2020.
With the release of the Gear VR, the path to those tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue has officially begun.
Samsung and its partner, Oculus VR—which Facebook bought last year for $2 billion—believe the time is right to launch Gear VR into the world at large because the technology is ready for prime time, and because there’s enough content available for the platform to keep users satisfied.
It also doesn't hurt that many of the problems users of earlier iterations of VR hardware had (nausea and other discomfort) have largely dissipated as the platform makers figured out how to obviate them.
When Samsung initially released the Innovator Edition last year, explains DiCarlo, the goal "was to do two things: Prove high-quality VR could be done on a phone, and we did prove that. And second, to get the Gear VR out into hands of developers to build the content ecosystem, and to VR enthusiasts to get their feedback, so we would know what kind of content would work on mobile."
So the goal was to get the product and its ecosystem to a place where large numbers of people could use it without encountering the kinds of problems early-stage technology often has, and to make sure the device was polished enough for a major release.
"The reason consumer VR is here is that we have gotten over that hump," says Max Cohen, head of mobile at Oculus. "We didn’t want to just release a gimmick. We wanted to release a product you’re going to use every day, [or at least] every week. We feel like we’re there with Gear VR, and with the [Oculus] Rift in the next few months."
Adds Cohen, "We wanted [content] people could play for a couple of hours….We wanted to give them the resources for full-length games, and fun for a longer period of time, and we weren’t there a year ago when we launched the Innovator Edition."
Enthusiasts, content producers, retailers, and others in the virtual reality ecosystem have a lot to look forward to in the coming months, as the Gear VR launches with more than 100 available apps, including the ability to watch 100 full-length 20th Century Fox movies, anything in Netflix’s catalog, and much more.
On the higher end, Oculus will launch its full-scale Rift headset in the first quarter of 2016, while HTC is expected to begin selling its much-anticipated Vive not much later. Sony is also said to be readying to launch its PlayStation VR headset in the first half of next year.
At the same time, toy giant Mattel’s View-Master began selling what amounts to a souped-up version of Google Cardboard last month. And two weeks ago, millions of people got a free gift of an actual Google Cardboard with their New York Times subscriptions, along with access to a compelling collection of VR content they could watch using their iPhone or Android smartphone.
Still, when historians look back on the dawn of the consumer virtual reality age, they may well look at the launch of the Gear VR as the technology’s seminal moment.
"It’s hugely important," says Ted Schilowitz, a futurist at 20th Century Fox who helps oversee VR projects for the Fox Innovation Lab. "It’s a litmus test of, 'Do people want this?'"
The GreenlightVR/Touchstone Research report suggests they do, even if they’re not sure which device they want. To Schilowitz, it may not matter, as long as people get their hands on virtual reality.
"Everybody I’ve shown VR to," he says, "has had a major ‘Wow’ moment."
What may be VR’s biggest problem—and its biggest opportunity—is that there’s still relatively little content available across all the platforms. The Gear VR will launch with a variety of titles, ranging from games like Lands End and Dead Secret to Jurassic World: Apatosaurus, a video featuring former President Bill Clinton visiting Africa, and even a short teaser for Fox’s The Martian VR Experience, a 20-minute interactive virtual reality project tied to the studio’s hit film.
All told, though, there’s not an endless amount of content to keep VR consumers busy yet. The release of VR hardware could help change that.
"What the ecosystem needs the most now is content, bottom line," says Jeffrey Greller, an agent at William Morris Endeavor specializing in VR. "Content creators just want the platform [so they can] go out and create, and that’s the trickiest thing right now—the lack of hardware to consume an experience….But those things are coming, and then hopefully with that comes capital to go out and finance content and continue to empower content creators and seed the ecosystem."
What’s clear is that VR is no longer seen in the same light as, say, vaporware, thanks to efforts like the New York Times/Google Cardboard project and Gear VR.
"VR’s serious now, that’s what the New York Times [project] said: ‘We’re not kidding around,’" says Arthur van Hoff, the cofounder and CTO of Jaunt, a Silicon Valley company making an end-to-end virtual reality content capture, processing, and distribution system. "It’s not a toy."
Van Hoff lauded the Gear VR launch, but added that he doesn’t think the device will on its own "change" virtual reality, in part because he doesn’t think it’s likely to reach millions of users in the short term.
Neither Samsung nor Oculus expect that either.
Oculus’s Cohen cautioned against expecting the Gear VR to be a virtual reality product that everyone will immediately rush out to buy.
"I don’t think we’ll sell millions of units in the next few months," Cohen says. "That’s not the way the product seems positioned right now."
Samsung's DiCarlo agrees. "I think that we can be extremely successful and really prove out mobile VR and VR in general," he says, "and not have to say millions. That’s just not how technology gets adopted in real life."
That’s intentional. Although the device is being released to consumers, it won’t be available at every retail store, and Oculus and Samsung clearly understand that these are still early days for VR technology. In other words, its success doesn’t depend on massive initial sales for the Gear VR or the other devices soon to hit the market, and slow, steady growth is just fine.
"The way I look at this is, people seem to forget that the iPod didn’t sell millions of units right away," Cohen says. "It’s not the very beginning [for VR], but it’s still the early days….As we add more features, and the content ecosystem grows, you can worry about getting in millions of people’s hands."
To Fox’s Schilowitz, it would be folly to think that consumer VR is a mature technology, just because the Gear VR has now hit the market and will soon be followed by other high-profile devices.
"We’re in the brick stage of VR," Schilowitz says, referring to the earliest cell phones. "That resonates with a lot of people. That big clunky box on your face? That’s today. That’s not tomorrow."
One very important player in the VR ecosystem who agrees with that sentiment is Oculus founder Palmer Luckey.
Establishing VR as a technology tied to mobile devices is important, Luckey told Fast Company in September. Despite the imminent release of the Oculus Rift, which depends on a gamer-quality PC for processing, we should expect VR to get smaller and smaller and more and more powerful without the need for PCs or even mobile phones for processing.
"In the long run...everything is going to run on mobile chipsets," Luckey says. "Eventually, virtual reality headsets aren’t going to be tethered to a phone or to a PC. When you get enough processing power, and it’s optimized well enough, and it gets to low-enough cost, it’s all going to be rendered on headsets. You’ll just have a single device that’s able to do everything without any compromises."