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VR 2016 Report Card

VR may not have shattered sales expectations, but 2016 proved that it is much more than just a gimmick.

There was a lot of hype for virtual reality heading into 2016, with some billing it as the “year of VR.” Analysts predicted last year that there would be 11 million VR users by the end of 2016. While VR manufacturers are keeping sales numbers close to their chests, recent sales estimates are more conservative. Regardless, 2016 was still a monumental year for the medium that delivered some amazing VR experiences. We saw the release of three major headsets: the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. Let’s look back at all the highlights (and lowlights).

Oculus Has a Rocky Start, but Finishes Strong

The Rift successfully funded its Kickstarter goal all the way back in 2012, but the consumer version of the head-mounted display (HMD) didn’t release until March 28, 2016. Regardless, it was still the first high-end VR gaming headset to launch.

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While there was a lot of hype leading into the Rift’s release, it hit a major bump in the road in January when Oculus revealed that the HMD would retail for $599. This disappointed many people who thought it would retail for much lower after company founder Palmer Luckey asserted that it would be in the ballpark of $350. To make matters worse, Oculus unexpectedly encountered a component shortage, which caused multi-month shipment delays at launch, even for those who preordered the device.

The Rift hit a major bump in the road in January when Oculus revealed that the HMD would retail for $599.

The company also drew more criticism after Luckey initially asserted that Oculus would allow people to purchase Rift games and mod them to work on the Vive, but reneged on that when modder CrossVR created the ReVive app, which allowed users to do just that. After continued criticism, Oculus removed its DRM measures to block ReVive.

The company also drew the ire of the PC community when it garnered multiple exclusive games, which made many feel like Oculus was instigating a new console-like war. Some of these high-profile games included Damaged Core, Edge of Nowhere, and Chronos. Oculus contended that these high-quality experiences wouldn’t have existed had the company not invested in them.

While Oculus had a rough start, the company improved its situation toward the tail end of the year. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the Rift had a tumultuous launch at the company’s third annual Oculus Connect event in October, but remained steadfast in his commitment to Oculus’ efforts and announced that Facebook, who owns Oculus, would invest an additional $250 million into the platform. At Connect, Oculus also introduced asynchronous spacewarp, which is a rendering shortcut that lowered the Rift’s hardware requirements. With it, a sub-$500 PC could run the HMD.

Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the Rift had a tumultuous launch at the company’s third annual Oculus Connect event in October, but remained steadfast in his commitment to Oculus’ efforts.

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While the Rift lacked motion-tracked controllers at launch, it solved that issue when it released Oculus Touch on December 6th. Oculus Touch wasn’t cheap at $199, but the controllers not only got your hands into VR, but they’re also arguably the best VR controllers on the market. Touch also included a secondary sensor, which increased the Rift’s tracking field of view. Unlike controllers from Vive and PlayStation VR, they allow you to point and give the thumbs-up motion. These gestures did a good job enhancing cooperative experiences. Touch’s launch lineup was also incredibly strong, with standouts that include The Unspoken, I Expect You to Die, Medium, and Superhot VR.

The HTC Vive Delivers the Most Holodeck-like Experience

The HTC Vive released hot on the heels of the Rift on April 5, 2016. At $800, it was the more expensive VR system, but it provided room-scale experiences right out of the box with its intricate lighthouse system and motion-tracked controllers. At launch, Valve also released The Lab, which was a free mini-game compilation that showcased fun and innovative room-scale experiences. Coupled with other launch games like Job Simulator, Space Pirate Trainer, and Fantastic Contraptions, Vive opened our eyes to what VR could do.

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While there was a lot of shovelware on the platform, there were several diamonds in the rough. Despite Vive’s relatively small user base, shooter Raw Data became one of the best-selling games on Steam as well as the first VR game to surpass the $1 million sales milestone. Rec Room proved that VR could be a fun, social platform. Horror game A Chair in a Room tossed you into a virtual psych ward and played with your perceptions of reality in a way that only VR could.

Vive opened our eyes to what VR could do.

Vive also opened up a wealth of excellent non-VR tools and experiences, such as Tilt Brush, La Peri, and Google Earth VR. Google Earth VR is a notable standout. Designed by Google, the VR app allowed users to fly around the earth in a 3D photogrammetry version of the planet.

Towards the tail end of the year, HTC released newer versions of Vive that integrated its three headset cables (HDMI, USB, and power) into one cord. This made Vive less cumbersome to use. Valve also teased a new VR controller prototype at its SteamDevDays event in October, which would allow you to physically grip and let go of the controllers to grab and drop in-game objects. Valve also revealed that a third of the company was working on VR, and said that its projects would not disappoint.

PlayStation VR Made Virtual Reality More Accessible to the Masses

PlayStation VR was the last major headset to launch when it released on October 13. Its tech may not be as sophisticated as the aforementioned headsets, but it was by far the most affordable HMD on our list, starting out at $399. It’s also arguably the most accessible VR system since it’s compatible with every PlayStation 4 console.

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Its tech was held back a bit by a singular PlayStation Camera, however. This meant its tracking wasn’t as all-encompassing as the aforementioned VR systems. On the brightside, PlayStation VR is easily the most comfortable HMD out of the bunch.

PSVR’s capabilities grew a bit in November when Sony released its PlayStation 4 Pro console. Developers could use the Pro’s extra processing power to bolster VR games. For instance, developer Impulse Gear’s VR shooter Farpoint will look better on the Pro.

While the PlayStation 4 isn’t as powerful as gaming PCs required to play the Rift and Vive, what the platform lacked in graphical prowess its games often made up in production values. With Sony at the helm, VR experiences like The London Heist, Shark Encounter, and games from other AAA publishers looked refreshingly beautiful compared to many of the low-budget early access VR games on Steam. Games like Thumper and Rez also showed that traditional games can not only work in VR, but can thrive and be more immersive in it.

While the PlayStation 4 isn’t as powerful as gaming PCs required to play the Rift and Vive, what the platform lacked in graphical prowess its games often made up in production values.

Even though PlayStation VR was the last VR headset out of the gate, it’s rumored to have sold the most units. GameStop VP of merchandising said that PSVR had exceeded the company’s early expectations.

Other Matters, in Brief

  • Oculus showed off its wireless VR headset. Codenamed “Santa Cruz,” the HMD will use four external cameras on the front of the headset for inside-out positional tracking.

  • Gear VR failed to make a meaningful impact. Oculus CTO John Carmack said that mobile VR has been coasting on novelty.

  • Google released its own mobile DayDream VR headset in October. Retailing for $80, DayDream is currently only compatible with the company’s Pixel phone.

  • HTC teased an add-on for the Vive, which would allow you to use the HMD wirelessly.

Verdict

2016 may not have been “the year of VR” as many analyst had predicted, but it did enough to show that it’s more than just a gimmick. It’s important to remember that smartphones, which are now a pervasive part of our culture, took several years to hit critical mass. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that it could take 10 years for virtual reality to reach mass market adoption.

While there was no singular killer must-have VR game, there were glimpses of greatness from all the major VR platforms. 2016 proved that VR can deliver unique and innovative experiences that no other medium can offer.

The GoodThe Bad
– The Vive introduced a totally new way to play games with its room-scale mechanic.– All of the VR headsets are wired.
– Oculus had a strong Touch launch lineup.– There was no killer VR-seller game.
– PlayStation VR made virtual reality relatively affordable for the masses.– VR is still prohibitively expensive for many.