Summits Yellow

Viewpoint: Virtually Abandoned

Tim Maytom

Last week was E3, the computer games industry’s annual gathering designed to showcase upcoming hardware and software to eager consumers. And while there were plenty of titles for gamers to get excited about, there was a noticeable missing element to most of the presentations that anyone who’s been following the tech industry for the past few years couldn’t help but pick up on.

In many ways, games have helped pave the way for a huge number of tech advances. The first computers in most consumers’ homes weren’t desktops or laptops, but games consoles. The push for online gaming helped develop the capabilities that now support streaming video and cloud storage. When smartphones were in their infancy, it was the game developers who were building the first in-app purchase features and creating the first mobile ad formats to monetise their software. And it is to gaming that we look for our next great advance – the popularisation of virtual reality.

Only in this case, it seems as those the gaming industry isn’t there.

Glance at the titles announced at this year’s E3, and it won’t take you too long to spot a common theme among the virtual reality releases from big name studios. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for Playstation VR. Doom VFR. Fallout 4 VR. Superhot VR. All the notable titles are virtual reality versions of existing games, some of them over five years old.

There was little sign of virtual reality being integrated into the big new releases from games studios in an organic way, or VR versions of games getting equal billing and a simultaneous release with their console or desktop counterparts.

The muted fanfare for VR was hardly a surprise. While last year’s E3 saw virtual reality dominate the narrative thanks to the reveal of the Playstation VR, the reception among industry analysts was mixed. Some said that the flood of games, software and experiences seen for the PSVR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive simply showed how far the technology still had to go, while others said that the focus E3 had placed on these platforms would actually be terrible for the future of VR.

A year later, and both device and software makers seemed a lot more gun-shy going into E3 2017. Sony has rolled back the scale of its promotion for the PSVR now the headset has launched, and Microsoft’s Xbox barely touched on VR at all, despite the announcement of a new version of the console.

Even the firms responsible for the new wave of consumer-grade VR headsets had a reduced presence at E3 this year. HTC Vive didn’t have its own booth, instead allowing software partners to show off their own demos and focusing on “ecosystem growth”. Oculus followed suit, letting developed like Hidden Path, Ready at Dawn and 4A show off their work on the device.

Microsoft, which has produced the ‘mixed reality’ HoloLens, appears to be holding off a commitment to VR at the moment, and any headset it does produce for the console market will likely be a wireless mixed reality device similar to the HoloLens, and won’t arrive until 2018.

“Our primary focus is making our mixed reality experiences a success on Windows 10 PCs,” said Alex Kipman, technical fellow at Microsoft in an interview with Polygon. “We believe that right now a Windows PC is the best platform for mixed reality as its open ecosystem and enormous installed base offer the best opportunity for developers, and Windows offers the most choices for consumers.”

With these major stakeholders in the digital entertainment world seemingly reticent to commit to virtual reality, the question seems to be ‘Will VR ever find a sustainable audience?’ While marketers have trumpeted the formats immersion and ability to deliver experiences unlike any other media, agencies and brands have mostly relied on tech firms and games developers to scout this uncharted territory.

Sony may have sold 1m Playstation VR headsets in the past year, but without software that goes beyond short, gimmicky experiences, those headsets risk joining the dance mats, Rock Band guitars and Donkey Kong bongos in the heap of abandoned console peripherals. And without a significant commitment to the format by the game development community, will the dream of VR in every home ever take off?