The Battle for Virtual Reality Gaming Heats Up

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Increasingly, it looks like the future of gaming will include a heavy dose of virtual reality — at least, that’s what companies like Sony (NYSE:SNE) and Oculus VR are hoping. If you follow tech, you’ve probably heard about Facebook’s (NASDAQ:FB) $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, the company making the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Sony is also entering the VR fray with its “Project Morpheus” headset that it announced in March. Sony hasn’t released too many details about Morpheus, leaving some to wonder exactly how invested the company is in the product.

No need to wonder anymore, because in an interview with The Guardian, Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Andrew House says that Project Morpheus is “definitely more than an experiment … We’re putting a significant investment into the product.”

The Morpheus headset, which contains a high-definition screen, 3D audio technology, and sensors to track users’ head movement, will work exclusively with the PlayStation 4 console. Practically speaking, if all goes according to plan, you’ll feel like you’re in your video games more deeply than ever before. No release date has been announced yet for Morpheus.

Assuming Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) doesn’t whip up a headset of its own, Morpheus’s chief competition at the time of launch will be the Oculus Rift. The Oculus Rift is made for PC games, which may limit its widespread appeal. On the other hand, players may feel more comfortable strapping on a headset in their bedrooms or home offices where their computer is stored, rather than in the middle of their living rooms, where many people keep their PlayStation 4 consoles.

The other advantage Oculus has marketshare-wise is that its ambitions lie beyond just gaming. Yesterday Oculus announced a developer conference for the device, plus the acquisition of RakNet, a game networking engine that makes it easy for developers to add things like voice chat to their titles.

What makes these companies think VR is about to take off? Sony thinks it’s because the technology has finally caught up with the sci-fi idea of what a VR headset can do. In the same Guardian interview, House said, “We do now think that we can get to this point of delivering a magical sense of presence — where your brain tricks you into thinking you’re actually in this place. We think there’s something there that could be really, really interesting for a next frontier of game development.”

Judging by the reaction to Oculus, developers seem to be on board with VR as well. House continues, “With Oculus we saw this groundswell of game development that didn’t necessarily have a monetizable or a business option, but [developers were] so passionate about this space that they were doing this essentially in their spare time. It struck that me that if there’s a variety of game developers showing interest in this space then it’s probably time to jump in and see if we can play a part and give them the tools they’re looking for.”

It’s a smart approach that contrasts with how Microsoft brought out its Kinect motion-sensing hardware. The Kinect, which until last month was bundled with every Xbox One sold, added $100 to the cost of the game console, making it more expensive than the PlayStation 4. When the PlayStation 4 began outselling the Xbox One month after month, Microsoft decided to offer a Kinect-less Xbox One, because by and large developers and customers didn’t seem to care about the accessory.

It’s still too early to tell, but Sony’s approach to VR may prove more successful than Microsoft’s attempts at motion control. Instead of forcing the hardware on customers, Sony took the time to see that there’s interest in VR before starting development. It’s a safer bet than Microsoft took with the Kinect, but it may end up paying big dividends anyway.

Right now, of course, all we know is that two well-funded VR headsets are in the works, and developers are excited about the possibilities. Whether customers will actually buy the products in significant numbers once they come out remains to be seen. Either way, it’s an exciting time to be a gamer.

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