Watching the birth of a whole new industry is overwhelming. The news are coming so fast it's hard to keep up with all the developments. Let us present you a short guide, so you don't look completely lost when virtual reality is discussed next time at the pub, or in the board room.
The virtual reality landscape is fragmented today. Basically all the big players in consumer electronics have their own platform, and there's not going to be much market consolidation in the foreseeable future. The notable players missing are Apple and Amazon. This hardly comes by surprise. The Cupertino boys are known for arriving late to a party (and then usually conquering the dance floor with one single perfectly executed stunt). We expect to see Amazon exploring the VR market at some point in the next 12 months, but the company has never been particularly successful with hardware (except for the Kindle, and most recently the Echo).
The Oculus - Facebook - Samsung platform
The story begins on Kickstarter, where Oculus became some sort of a poster child for the crowdfunding site. It has been acquired by Facebook shortly after it's been successfully funded. Samsung jumped on the bandwagon later with Gear VR, built on the Oculus ecosystem.
This trio is, in many respects, the Dream Team of virtual reality. The Rift, now available for pre-order, is arguably the most advanced VR kit ever created, providing incredible motion tracking and a fully immersive experience. You need a Windows powerhouse to use the Rift, and its price ($599) makes it an expensive futuristic toy for gaming enthusiasts.
Enter Samsung. Not everyone can, or wants to pay $599 for a VR kit, especially considering it probably will become obsolete a year from now. Samsung's Gear VR is a mere $99, as it's an "empty shell". Why would you need the Rift if your phone is, basically, as powerful as a high-end PC was just a few years ago? It has a gorgeous screen, fairly decent motion tracking, and an OK-ish sound system. Sure, you need one of the most recent Samsung phones to use Gear VR (Note 5, Galaxy S6, S6 edge or S6 edge+; and watch out for the news about the S7 lineup next week), but you buy a new phone each year anyway. What makes Gear VR so powerful is the partnership with Oculus. Samsung's solution is built upon the same software platform as the Rift, making it relatively easy for developers to score on both devices.
We are very bullish on the Oculus-Facebook-Samsung platform. We don't think you should buy a Rift just yet, unless VR is your business. VR today is what smartphones were in 2007. Yes, we all love the first iPhone, but let's face it: two years later it looked like something from a museum. On the other hand you should buy a Gear VR today, if you happen to have a compatible Samsung phone. It's inexpensive, fun, and suprisingly good.
The Google Cardboard, and the company's future platform
You could feel the amusement at Google IO last year when the company announced Cardboard out of nowhere. Not just announced, but delivered! There are millions of Google Cardboards just in the States, and many more worldwide. Dozens of companies started building Cardboard-compatible viewers, and you can easily order one online for as cheap as $20.
The Cardboard is an excellent introduction to virtual reality. You could argue is the exact antithesis of Google Glass: it's fun, it's something you'd show your friends right away, it's inspiring. Considering the sad fate of the Glass, Google's light-hearted approach with the Cardboard is refreshing.
Don't think of the Cardboard as a product. It's a piece of joyful amusement, but most importantly it's the beginning of a platform. Google is exceptionally well positioned to be the flag-bearer of virtual reality: the Android ecosystem, a deep pool of talented engineers, its connection with brands, and a solid line of successful hardware.
We are excited to see what Google will come up with this year. There are confirmed rumours about a standalone VR kit probably coming this May (we covered it yesterday). The company is betting big on virtual reality, and what Google wants, Google usually gets.
For now, order a Cardboard. No $20 spent will bring you as much fun as this.
The Steam-HTC Vive platform
This is going to be amazing. Only a few had the chance to actually try the HTC Vive, but those who did were raving about it. It supposedly provides a better, more immersive experience than the Oculus Rift, and that's saying something.
If we are entirely honest, it's not HTC who's calling the shots in this partnership. Sure, they have the capabilities to deliver very solid hardware, and we are positive they won't let us down. That said, the true giant here is Valve, with its Steam ecosystem, and the SteamVR engine. What we know about it today is indeed mind-blowing; arguably the most advanced VR development platform out there.
This platform has an enormous potential, but its audience is going to be limited to the very hardcore gamers - at least in the beginning. It does not have a "little brother", like Gear VR is for Oculus. We believe HTC should introduce one.
The Microsoft HoloLens platform
The first thing you need to know about the Microsoft HoloLens is that it's not a virtual reality platform. It's augmented reality in its most powerful form. It projects virtual objects, "holograms", into the real world. Now, we had AR for a couple of years now, and usually it wasn't great. It's been always percieved as something rudimentary compared to a full immersion VR experience. The HoloLens is different. You have to see it to believe it.
The HoloLens is standalone hardware, you don't need to connect it to a computer. In fact, it is a computer, a self-contained Windows 10 PC built into the device (which is, by the way, unbelievably sleek and sexy). Critics always point out that the the field of view is quite narrow. It is - but it's going to get better, and it's AR, not VR. Full immersion is not what we want to achieve here.
HoloLens is going to gain traction among Xbox players first; Microsoft has a huge and loyal fan base to build upon. (And of course: real world Minecraft!) However, we are more excited to see it shine in another areas. Teleconferencing, product demos, product design, manufacturing etc are all perfect for augmented reality. Keep an eye on Microsoft. They chose to take a very different path, and it will be fascinating to watch where it will lead us.
The PlayStation VR platform
Sony should have an easy ride to become a defining player in VR: the PlayStation community is awesome, and the hardware experience is there. They do have a VR kit in the works called PlayStation VR, and it looks really really promising.
But there are unsettling news about something just not working at Sony. One of the lead VR developers decided to leave the company just last week, pursuing an independent career. The PlayStation VR is going to arrive late to the market, possibly introduced at GDC in March. PlayStation game developers seem to have relatively little trust in the technology.
We'll see. While this is clearly not one of Sony's brightest periods ever, we cross our fingers nevertheless. PlayStation deserves a kick-ass VR experience.
Another VR platforms to watch
Razor released an open source VR development kit last year, complete with a head mount display. We still have to see if it gains any traction.
Nintendo is reportedly considering returning to the VR market. Yes, returning, as the company already had a VR device before. It was 1995, and the Virtual Boy was a huge flop. This time it very well might be different.
And of course everyone is trying to read between the lines about what's cooking in Cupertino. Apple has hundreds of engineers working on VR / AR after acquiring multiple smaller companies in the field. We have no idea what they are up to, but we assume it changes everything. Again.