I had a great time up at GDC (the annual Game Developers Conference) in San Francisco yesterday. Two things are clear: virtual reality is finally arriving, and it’s future’s so bright, we’ll soon all be wearing shades:
A few takeaways from my visit to a very VR-centric GDC:
I and many others stood in line for hours for the hottest VR demos, like the Oculus “Crescent Bay” experiences at the Nvidia booth. The highlight was “Thief in the Shadows,” a collaboration between Weta Digital, Epic Games, and Oculus, which brought to life CG assets from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”.
As amazing as it was, it and the other high-end demos, such as the one in support of the just-announced Vive VR headset from HTC and Valve (which I heard was truly awesome), showcase a major schism in the brewing VR platform wars. The most impressive demos require high-end (and often complex) hardware that will not be within the reach of mainstream consumers any time soon. For example, “Thief in the Shadows” showcased the power of Nvidia’s just announced Titan X graphics card, the “world’s most advanced GPU,” with 12 GB of RAM and no pricing yet announced. (Assume thousands of dollars.) These high-end demos also require placement of sensors around the room, which enables position tracking, but ups the complexity greatly.
On the other side of the schism is the “Mobile VR” camp, which embraces the smartphone as the core of the experience, severing the dependence on cables, high-end PCs or consoles, and external tracking sensor arrays. Leaders in this camp include Samsung, with Gear VR (developed in partnership with Oculus), and Google, with “Cardboard” (an open-source hardware approach to creating a display that ranges in price from cheap to free). Both are very exciting, and seem certain to bring VR to millions of consumers well in advance of the high-end folks. There’s a great article today in Wired by David Pierce, entitled The Future of Virtual Reality is Inside Your Smartphone. It suggests not only that Mobile VR will go mainstream first, but that it will also drive the future, thanks to ever more powerful smartphones:
More importantly, your next smartphone is going to be really, really powerful, and it’ll probably have a 4K or better screen. The one after that? Forget about it. Mobile computing is on such an insane trajectory, says [Samsung’s Nick] DiCarlo, that you’d be crazy not to just jump on the rocketship. “It’s pretty easy to draw these curves where [a smartphone] starts being better than Xbox 360,” he says, “better than all these things we’re accustomed to, really really quickly. Stuff that is relatively new, and the phone is going to be more powerful than that in one, two, three, five, ten years.” If that’s true, he says, and all evidence supports that it is, “what else would you do?”
We are witnessing the birth of a new platform, a new mass medium. As with the web in 1994/95 and mobile and social in 2007/08, there’s a Wild West, Gold Rush excitement and energy. It’s a great time to be in Silicon Valley, and with the intensity of the competition already underway, it will be an amazing time to be a consumer of virtual reality.