2016 View: Video Games Bring to Life Virtual Reality Experiences

Video game executives say this is the winter of new content, but they’re also taking a longer view.

The new video game consoles (Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4) debuted two years ago so there’s an abundance of titles for the holidays. But even as the industry racks up big sales, the stakes are about to be raised again. Robert Gray looks beyond the console game experience to virtual reality, expected to become an actuality for a growing number of gamers and early adopters in 2016.

The big guns have literally come out for the holidays in the video game wars. Analysts say this year should provide the ‘sweet spot’ for content and a look at the best selling and most anticipated software titles indicates the game publishers are aiming to score big: there’s “Star Wars: Battlefront” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, the Disney Infinity 3.0 play set, “Fallout 4” (the biggest debut of the year in the US), “Call of Duty: Black Ops 3”, and the list goes on.
But while the industry will rake in millions of dollars in console and game sales over the holidays, the stage has been set for a brave new world of virtual reality in 2016.
Samsung has released its consumer Gear VR headset while the long-awaited Oculus Rift and Sony’s PlayStation VR (formerly Project Morpheus) are slated to debut in the New Year. Microsoft is slated to release Hololens, its augmented reality experience.
Industry insiders say virtual reality will help expand the evolving video game and home entertainment market.
“As a first-party platform, it’s not stealing part of your pie, it’s growing the pie,” asserts Shawn Layden, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, adding, “What we did with singing and cameras on PS 2, we’re looking at things like VR which will grow the market.”
The Sony exec continues, “It’s not just pushing more games in and capturing more market share through that, we want to grow the entire entertainment experience; and {PlayStation VR) is our statement of intent to do just that.
There’s always the question of what games or experiences will be available when a new platform launches, a chicken or egg proposition for casual fans who want to know if there are enough titles to justify the cost; die-hard gamers will generally snap up new systems on launch.
Now that so many big-name titles and sequels to popular AAA games are on the new console platforms, that’s a big reason that the video game industry expects a big software holiday this year. It’s also important to point out that many consumers were buying consoles the past two years and having made those sizeable purchases now may have more buying power for new titles to play on those systems. It also doesn’t hurt that price cuts and bundles make the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One less expensive this year than the past two holiday seasons.
This typical cycle is expected to play out in the virtual reality realm as well.
When asked who will make virtual reality games for Sony, Layden’s face lights up and he answers, “Everyone’s welcome at the party. Probably around 20 percent will be made in-house, the rest will be third-party developers.”
And while you will still need a PS 4 to access PlayStation VR, the Sony executive says you may not necessarily be playing games on it: “I think games will be the easiest entry point into VR for people but we’re talking to hundreds of other content providers: movie studios, TV production houses, educational outlets, museums, aerospace industry you name it.”
Sports fans in particular seem jazzed about the prospect of virtually “attending” games, a passion Layden and others are happy to fuel: “I think one of the most exciting things about virtual reality, just think if you put your headset on and you’re sitting in row 3, seat 36 at the Warriors-Cavaliers NBA Finals game without leaving your living room.”
Clearly, the Sony exec is not alone as Peter Gruber, one of the owners of the Golden State Warriors invested in NextVR, which broadcast the team’s season opener in virtual reality.
“Some developers will attack VR in a way that’s a virtual reality enhanced version of the PS 4 game,” Layden says, adding, “But maybe there’s a level or a mode that if you have PlayStation VR you can have a deeper experience but if you don’t have it you can still complete the game and get full value for money.”
Layden also expects more unique PlayStation VR-required content coming to market over time, along with the sports and entertainment content.
So how much would the experiences cost vis-à-vis console games? Sony’s Layden says it’s not an apples to apples comparison. “I think the VR experience really befits a more concentrated and concise gaming experience. It may cost the same as a PlayStation 4 console game or less if you’re not making a 60-hour game experience.”
Gamers aside, other industries are champing at the bit to add VR.
Facebook-owned Oculus created its own platform, which uses the considerable computing power of an advanced PC (its mobile platform is used by Samsung’s Gear mobile VR headset). NextVR also uses the Oculus platform.

The mobile experience is improving, and Google grabbed headlines in the fall with its Cardboard VR glasses, but industry insiders and analysts conted the more immersive experiences in these early days will come from headsets tethered to powerful machines whether PCs or gaming consoles. 
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe addresses head on the question ‘what can I do on Oculus at launch?’: “There will be a lot to do on Rift in Q1 2016, a lot of content at launch will come from Oculus Studios.” He notes parent company Facebook is investing $10 million in indie developers and “far more than that into Oculus Studios.”
Iribe says, “This is the next gen gaming, next gen entertainment, next gen computing. This is the next major platform. Look at personal computer shrinking down to your pocket in a smartphone, the next leap is virtual reality—VR. And the Rift will be the best VR in the world.”
Hyperbole aside, analysts do expect to see VR spreading beyond video games—although eSports are certainly forecast to be a natural addition to the mix. 
Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities notes, “If virtual reality is limited to gaming, it’s only a very small market. If everyone gets (a headset), it’s very large. With flip phones, the mobile game market was very small. When the smartphone came in and everybody got one it became a very large market. No one has ever bought a phone to play a game, but everybody with a phone plays games.”
Pachter adds, “Only a small percentage of people will buy VR headsets to play games, a large group will buy for education, porn, business applications, and they’ll also play games. If you give people a productivity reason to buy VR, games will do great.”
Iribe, the Oculus CEO, says the biggest surprise is the rapidity with which the technology and interest in it has grown since their first duct tape demo three years ago: “The amount of momentum around VR is awesome. I don’t think any of us thought it would get this big this fast. This journey has happened very quickly and I think VR is going to be one of those new industries that takes off like a rocket.”
If the hype coming from the industry and analysts is to be believed, developers and consumers should watch for that blastoff to be initiated at CES.