No coverage of CES 2016 would be complete without at least a brief discussion of virtual reality. It was all over the news, not just the tech news, but the nightly news: 2016 would be the year that virtual reality changed how we view the world. And indeed, there were long, long lines everywhere there was virtual reality to be experienced, or even observed, as it's actually quite interesting to watch others engage in a virtual world. You can't help but think people wearing big black goggles, rapidly turning their heads from side to side and up and down, look just a tad bit hiliarious. And then you try VR and begin to realize that it's not such a laughing matter after all....
Oculus: Creating the Rift
To understand just how big an influence Oculus had on this show, one need only gaze upon the lineup of showgoers looking to get a brief chance to engage with its Rift headset:
Indeed, the line to try out the Rift was 90-minutes long, reminiscent of something you might see at DisneyLand rather than a tech conference. Luckily, we were able to try the Rift at one of the multitude of other booths that had one on display; indeed, just about everyone, from the biggest to the smallest companies, wants to be a "partner" of Oculus right now - that's just how hot this brand is at the moment. We caught up with the Rift at the Dell booth, as Dell is in the process of getting some of its Alienware X51 gaming systems certified as Oculus-ready (no systems had yet been given the seal of approval as of the conference date).
Much has been made of the announcement regarding the cost of the Oculus Rift: $600, rather than the $350 to $400 that was hinted at by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey. Well, it's pretty clear he's more of a showman than a businessman, but frankly, no one should have ever believed that a product packing in this much new tech could possibly go for $350. Each set of Rift headsets includes two Samsung-sourced 2160 x 1200 ultra-high-res displays, operating at a very fast 90Hz to prevent motion sickness (the standard 60Hz just wouldn't have worked for this application), along with a full audio system. And just because the displays are small doesn't mean they are cheap to produce. You're still talking about some very high-tech panels.
Then there's the fact that Oculus is investing tons of (Facebook's) money into creating a platform, marketing it to partners, and ensuring that it provides a uniform experience despite the multitude of different systems on which it will be run. Indeed, besides the cost of the Rift, critics have been a bit up in arms about the minimum specs required to run it, including a quad-core CPU and a $300 video card. Add it all up, and you'll need a PC in the vicinity of $1,000 to run your $600 Rift, meaning you're paying about four times what it costs to buy a game console.
But again, this is a totally different can of worms: our experience playing Lucky's Tale, a game something like Super Mario Bros but set in a 360-degree virtual world, suggested that VR is something that definitely had a lot of appeal. We don't feel that the application of VR in a third-person game, however, is ideal, as looking around the glorious world around you means you're taking your eyes off the character you're trying to control, which can lead to some very long falls off of some very steep cliffs....
A more compelling demonstration was one that we unfortunately didn't snap a photo of, but which looked very much like what you'd see in a science fiction movie: two competitors tied to a platform with elastic waist straps, running on personal 360-degree treadmills, allowing them to move around around their virtual world, toy gun in hand; indeed, they had become a part of the virtual world, and they were not only seeing what their character would see through their goggles, but controlling where their character went with their bodies. This is the inevitable zenith of VR, but it's unlikely to arrive in our living rooms any time soon.
Samsung: Gunning for the Casual Experience
If Oculus is looking to entice the hard-core gamer, interested in pouring a lot of money into a high-end PC to experience the best that 2016 can offer in terms of VR, Samsung is looking to entertain the masses, and surely, there is a much bigger market to be tapped here. While Samsung's Gear is "powered by Oculus," all that means, according to the Samsung representatives we spoke to, is that you can download the casual games that work with Gear from the Oculus store. The truth is that a lot of the Gear experience will probably be a lit less participatory, and more in line with a movie-watching experience. Sure enough, the two demonstrations we saw of Gear VR amassed a whole lot of participants engaging in seemingly random head bobbing, along with motorized chairs that caused their bodies to follow suit. No one had a controller in hand, but all seemed quite amused, at least as far as one can ascertain when a big black box is strapped to a person's eyes. The demonstration was actually called "Samsung Gear VR Theater," making it very clear that this was an entertainment experience rather than a gaming experience.
Gear VR requires only the use of a Samsung smartphone, and in fact the entire Gear VR endeavor is being run out of Samsung's mobile phone division. While the Samsung Galaxy line of phones has been nothing if not successful, it will be interesting to see if the team that has brought it to this point can continue moving it in the right direction in the VR world.
Of course, Samsung dominates so many of the worlds in which it operates that it's likely it will achieve at least a modicum of success in the world of virtual reality, even if the results, like its products, are never quite stellar.