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Virtual Reality – One Year since CV1

We’re coming up on one year since the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were released. Happy birthday, Oculus and Vive.

After years of hype beginning in 2012, and clunky developer prototypes leading up to the consumer version, the attractively designed Oculus Rift came to market more expensive than most enthusiasts were hoping for and still required a relatively expensive PC and an Xbox controller to run the limited array of software available for the device. Predictably, that meant only the most enthusiastic consumers bought into the long-awaited coming of consumer-ready VR.

Despite those hurdles, Oculus is gradually gaining a loyal user base.

The question is, can it expand that dedicated early adopter enthusiasm to the mainstream? Let’s take a look at the last 12 months and see exactly where Oculus won and lost in its mission to bring VR to the masses. So we can pinpoint when the future of VR will really be here.

The missing links

For a while, despite its design polish, it seemed like the Rift might remain a device exclusively for hobbyists. That is, until the release of Oculus Touch. The beautifully designed controllers didn’t reach consumers until December of 2016, though, and by that time the initial momentum of the Rift’s release had already waned.

Nevertheless, the ability of the Touch controllers to deliver a more elegant solution to hand presence in VR sparked new interest in the Rift, particularly from users who had already purchased the Rift earlier in the year. (And especially compared to the clunky wands introduced by the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.)

Whereas early Rift apps required familiarity with the Xbox controllers, forcing users into an awkward hybrid interface that still had one foot in console gaming, Touch provided a completely native interface to VR.

The Touch arrived late to the game, but it turned out it was worth the wait. Along with the Touch, Oculus introduced Avatars, customizable virtual faces and hands that took VR immersion to the next level.

Samsung’s Gear VR, the mobile VR headset that requires a Samsung smartphone to work, has thrived thanks in part to its partnership with Oculus.

In fact, if you compare the first year of the iPhone in 2007, which boasted roughly 6 million in sales, you could argue that the Gear VR is on a  comparable trajectory, with 5 million Gear VR devices sold so far, according to Samsung.

But despite the strong numbers, it’s still not common at all to see someone at an airport or café using the mobile VR device.

How are sales?

And, maybe even more important, “Who’s winning?” After all, everyone loves a meaningless battle between two corporations.

Oculus has been tight-lipped about sales figures for its desktop model though, and HTC hasn’t been much better—only confirming in November that sales were “much higher” than 140,000.

And so we turn to Epic founder Tim Sweeney, who held  a lengthy interview with Glixel this week. He doesn’t give hard numbers, but does say that PC-oriented VR (a.k.a. not PlayStation VR or mobile solutions like GearVR) has sold around half a million headsets.

He then follows that up with “HTC Vive is outselling Oculus 2-to-1 worldwide. I think that trend will continue.”

Two to one. That’s a huge disparity, and (doing some quick napkin math) would put the Vive at around 330,000 sales and the Rift at around 165,000. Those figures may or may not be accurate—not only is Sweeney’s ratio an estimate, but his 500,000 VR headset sales is also just a general summary of the market. Still, it’s a better idea of sales figures than anyone else has provided since virtual reality released to the public, and the pace with which the Vive has outstripped the Rift is a bit astounding.

Sweeney attributes it to the Vive being a more open platform. Said Sweeney:

Some of the bad mojo started when Facebook acquired Oculus back in 2014, leading to an immediate outcry from early Oculus supporters who backed the VR device on Kickstarter.

For some, the idea of adopting Oculus means (ultimately) buying into Facebook — which is a virtual bridge too far for some early adopters.