Virtual Reality Makes a Big Splash at E3 2016

Key Announcements Highlight the Gaming Industry’s Dedication to VR

At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) numerous companies, big and small, showcased their latest games, software and hardware. Here I’ll look at the important VR-related announcements and their implications for the market.


Sony Steals the VR Show

The gaming console giant announced that its PlayStation VR headset will start shipping on 13 October 2016 for $399. Although it won’t necessarily offer the highest-quality VR experience, it will likely be 2016’s most straightforward and affordable high-end VR system. For the price of the HTC Vive headset ($800) or Oculus Rift ($599) — both of which require a high-end PC — gamers can purchase both the PlayStation 4 console and the PlayStation VR headset. I also expect Sony to further subsidise the hardware and release various bundles closer to the holiday shopping season.

Surprisingly Sony didn’t reveal its new PlayStation console (code-named Neo) at the show, which I expect to deliver a high-spec VR experience. Instead, Sony chose to focus on its new games.

Sticking with the VR theme, Sony announced that 50 VR games will be available when the PlayStation VR is released in October. It should be noted that a large number of these are likely to be short “experiences” rather than full games, such as the X-Wing VR mission for Star Wars: Battlefront, and Batman: Arkham VR. Add-on content is the low-risk way for developers to get into VR, but I don’t think they’ll be the key drivers of sales or interest.

The company did, however, reveal that the Resident Evil 7 game (out on 24 January 2017) will be playable in VR from start to finish. I believe the horror genre lends itself well to immersive (and potentially terrifying) VR experiences.


Resident Evil 7 VR gameplay

Microsoft Indicates Its VR Ambitions

In previous years, Microsoft has been criticised for concentrating too much on the hardware and software powering the Xbox experience, and not spending enough time highlighting its upcoming games. Although it still dedicated a considerable part of its press conference to new versions of the Xbox One, customisable controllers, online features and Windows 10 interconnectivity, it made a conscious effort to focus more on new games and experiences.

In addition to revealing its Xbox One S console, Microsoft ended its conference by teasing another version of Xbox One, called Project Scorpio. It’s a more powerful counterpart to the Xbox One and S consoles, offers 4K gaming and, importantly, the ability to run VR games.


Project Scorpio

The head of the Xbox division, Phil Spencer, addressed concerns from consumers who recently purchased the Xbox One, saying that “no-one gets left behind” and that all upcoming games will be playable on all versions of Xbox One, with the exception of VR titles, which will be exclusive to the Project Scorpio console. Microsoft only provided high-level information about Project Scorpio, presumably so as not to detract from other announcements.

In contrast with Sony, which has invested in producing its VR headset, it seems likely that Microsoft will ally with Oculus, with which it has an existing partnership. This move would bring three key benefits to Microsoft: it can concentrate its research and development efforts on augmented reality and its HoloLens headset; close the gap with Sony in providing console-based VR; and it can also focus on delivering market-leading VR games and related content.

Other Notable VR News

Razer announced its updated OSVR headset for developers, featuring dual-display technology at 90 frames per second. It’s set to ship this July for $400. The headset will deliver similar specifications to the Oculus Rift, but I believe it’s destined to remain a niche yet important developer platform.

During Microsoft’s press conference, John Carmack, one of the pioneers of 3D gaming and the chief technology officer of Oculus, demonstrated the Minecraft VR game on the Samsung Gear VR headset. This further underlined the strategic relationship between Oculus and Microsoft.

There were numerous VR game announcements at E3:

  • Bethesda announced VR versions of Doom and Fallout 4, which will arrive in 2017 on the HTC Vive.
  • Ubisoft revealed Star Trek: Bridge Crew for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR. It’s a cooperative online game for up to four players.
  • Sony showcased a PlayStation VR-exclusive shooter called Farpoint, together with a new motion-based gun peripheral called Aim Controller promising one-to-one motion tracking.
  • Serious Sam VR will become available on Steam, with early access in summer 2016 for the HTC Vive headset.
  • Killing Floor Incursion and Super Hot VR will also be arriving in 2016 with Oculus Touch support — presumably after the Oculus Rift controllers launch later in the year.

Key VR Conclusions from E3

There was a clear shift away from revealing new hardware and consoles to conveying future gaming experiences, and highlighting the vision for VR as a major component of the future of gaming.

In the VR segment, Sony remains in the best position, as its PlayStation VR headset will be the most affordable and accessible VR-gaming centric product by the end of 2016.

However, game developer studios now face a VR challenge. Although it’s shaping up to be a significant element of future gaming experiences, the addressable market for VR will remain small for the next few years. This will make it difficult for game developers to justify committing vast resources to VR variants of their games while a larger total number of non-VR capable devices continue to exist in the market.