VR is going to be big. In the next year or two, you'll be able to go into a store, drop a few hundred bucks, and get a device you put over your face that tricks your brain into thinking you're somewhere else. Describing what is so great about a well-implemented VR experience is sort of like explaining HDTV by pointing to someone's low-def, black-and-white TV and saying "well imagine that, but in color, and much better resolution!"
The sense of "you are there," of presence, you already get from the Oculus Rift and Morpheus prototypes makes 3D movies look like the sad gimmicks they are. Nonetheless, there's still lot of work to be done on these prototypes, and neither one is ready for store shelves.
Oculus Rift: Building a software team
Oculus has been busy hiring since the Facebook acquisition in March. To date, the company has been focused on hardware and software engineering, solving the difficult problems of consumer VR. Now it's doing the necessary work to turn it into a platform, with high-quality experiences that are made for VR. That means hiring artists and programmers and other developers to form in-house game studios, making development tools, and building an online distribution and sales platform.
Oculus has some new stuff to show at E3, including an updated version of EVE: Valkyrie, a simple third-person 3D platformer called Lucky's Tale, and VR-enabled ports of the indie game Superhot and Sega's Alien: Isolation. Each is more compelling that playing on a monitor would be, but these aren't the kind of high-polish, immersive experiences that will sell the whole world on virtual reality.
The hardware is getting there. Development Kit 2 is a little on the heavy side, but the detail, field of view, focus, and latency are all quite good. The company is ready to head into mass production on DK2, shipping it to developers next month. It's a massive upgrade over the first development kit, and we'll see some really great stuff once it gets in the hands of registered developers. The next step is to finish the spec for the final consumer version, and finish the engineering and design necessary to go into mass production.
By its own admission, Oculus has been focused on the engineering side of VR games, solving tricky under-the-hood problems and developing software best practices. Hiring a slew of artists to make everything look pretty hasn't been a huge priority until recently.
Project Morpheus: Compelling despite its shortcomings
Sony has the opposite problem. The existing PlayStation infrastructure provides an existing development and sales framework. Its army of first-party developers can crank out polished VR games. It already has massive manufacturing capabilities.
But its hardware is clearly a step behind Oculus. It looks cool, and it's lightweight and comfortable, but it appears to suffer from a bit more latency, the field of view seems narrower, and the resolution seems worse (or the display just has more of a "screen door" effect, where you can notice the space between the pixels). Of course, Sony's headset is very much a prototype, and will likely see huge improvements before release.
Sony's hardware is the same version demoed at GDC, but there are a couple of new demos. EVE: Valkyrie looks and plays much like it does on the PC with Oculus, and is the clearest way to compare the two. (The Oculus/PC version seems a little smoother, with less latency while moving your head around.)
But Street Luge is the real showstopper. You sit in a low bean-bag chair, feet stretched out in front of you, while simulating a ride down a crowded street, dodging traffic on your back, a few inches from the pavement. Barreling down a winding mountain road, leaning to turn your sled, it's easy to forget you're sitting in the middle of a crowded convention center floor. The sense of speed and peril is palpable, and I couldn't help but notice my heart beating when the demo was over.
Sony's developed ecosystem, and existing motion-tracking PS Eye and Move controllers, give the company a nice foundation on which to build an impressive VR experience. It just needs a better headset, and real games rather than tech demos.
Don't expect a VR holiday
It's possible that one or both of these VR experiences will hit the shelves in time for the holidays, but I wouldn't bet on it. Oculus might be able to get final hardware done in time, but it seems like the software ecosystem its needs in place to establish itself as a platform and not an accessory is going to take more than six months to be ready for the public. Sony, by comparison, has a lot of the software pieces already in place, but it needs to keep working on hardware, not to mention build and distribute hundreds of development kits.
The pressure is on. With Facebook behind Oculus and Sony behind Morpheus, we have multi-billion-dollar companies racing to be the first to deliver a great experience to consumers. Whoever ships first gets to define the base experience consumers can expect from VR, and possibly establish a brand that is forever associated with the technology in the minds of everyday consumers. At the same time, neither company wants to rush to market with an experience that doesn't "wow" users, thus poisoning the public's impression of VR as a whole.