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High-end mobile VR is virtually here

Mike Elgan | June 21, 2016
A new category of virtual reality is emerging -- somewhere between tethered consoles and smartphone add-ons

Wheeeee! You're riding a flying unicorn down a magic rainbow while kittens and cupcakes rain from the sky. It's all so real.

Then, suddenly, everything goes black as you mindlessly take the final step in your living room to pull the cable from your virtual reality headset.


There's a virtual elephant in the living room, and here it is: High-quality virtual reality is going to be literally held back by the need to tether to a console.

Last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles offered new ideas (and old) to solve the catastrophic VR tethering problem.

VR is here at last

The world of VR has been teasing fans for decades. In recent years, the busting out of real VR has always been a year or two away, they told us.

Finally, I'm happy to announce that VR is really here this year. In fact, many E3 attendees told me the show represents a turning point for VR -- that this is the event that makes it real at long last (rather than virtually real, I guess).

After years of prototypes, teasers and promises, we're finally getting something solid. The Sony PlayStation VR got a price ($399), a release date (Oct. 13) and a promise of 50 games by the end of the year, just in time for the holidays. Nice!

Deloitte says virtual reality spending will pass $1 billion this year. So VR is also getting real as a business.

By the end of this year, the VR space will be a real market with real content and real products.

Too bad the VR you really want won't arrive this year.

The Goldilocks problem

High-end VR, which provides the most believable virtual experiences, is tethered to a console, which itself is plugged into a wall outlet. The cabling is necessary because the technology needed to provide these amazingly life-like virtual worlds is still too big to go mobile.

Arcades and special theme parks will use products like the Void Rapture or Starbreeze StarVR, which run on large, powerful computer systems and require serious cables connected to the headsets.

At home, Facebook's Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Sony's Playstation VR are going to be awesome. But they'll require you to be very careful about how you physically move while you're lost in VR land.

Remaining aware of your actual physical surroundings while using VR is harder than it sounds. The whole point of VR is total mental immersion in a space that isn't really there. People do completely forget about their actual surroundings.

This fact was accidentally demonstrated by all the VR demos at E3. Every attendee trying VR was either strapped into a chair or attended by a company representative, who stood there to make sure there weren't any mishaps.


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