Any bets on “the year of VR”?

First, it was going to be 2015 which would be “the year of VR”, when virtual reality would really come to the mass market. Then it was discovered that too many complex issues could not be fixed in time.

Over the run-up to the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), opening tomorrow in Las Vegas, even the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones wrote that 2016 was going to be “the year when VR goes from virtual to reality”.

Only now that CES is about to open, the bombshells have been dropping.

Many of the current issues centre on the quality (and quantity) of graphics which need to be displayed in front of each eye, to make a VR headset an exhilarating rather than frustrating and intensely nauseating experience. Having been brought to what felt like near-death from VR motion illness, I know just what this means.

Last year, the technology leader of the field in VR headsets, Oculus, accepted that the demands being made on graphics cards were so great that few if any Macs – for the time being – were going to have the balls to drive one of its systems, and dropped Mac support. Given that my current iMac has sufficient oomph in its graphics card to drive at least one 5K display, that gives you an idea of the exceedingly high demands being made by usable VR systems.

Now Nvidia estimates that less than 1% of PCs in use today have sufficient graphics and processor power to be able to support proper VR.

So with a maximum market of 13, perhaps 20, million capable systems this year, Oculus, HTC, and others investing heavily to launch their first VR headsets are hardly likely to see much in the way of return from them for a good while.

For developers, the situation must look even bleaker. There will be a few high-end non-games systems, undoubtedly, but much of the enthusiasm and money can only come from serious computer gamers, the sort who are quite happy to fork out several hundred pounds/dollars/euros for a new, faster graphics card. This is hardly a market which supports small, innovative software developers, particularly when you realise how much additional work (and cost) is required to produce a VR version of an existing game.

Then there is the continuing issue of how to control, or interface to, VR software. Controllers like the Leap Motion, or Oculus’ already long-delayed Touch controller, are far more demanding on a computer’s processor than current input devices such as trackpads. They also require learned skills, near-instant visual feedback through the VR headset (as when you wear a headset you cannot see directly where your hands or finders are), and are as immature as the headsets themselves.

So while Oculus, HTC, and maybe one or two other well-funded companies may launch their first open-market VR headsets this year, to claim 2016 as the ‘year of VR’ is wildly optimistic. It may be for a very small percentage of computer users who are already into high-end gaming. For the rest of us, try 2017, or even 2018, perhaps.

I will be very happy to eat these words next Christmas if I am wrong – VR is truly exciting. But it won’t be if it leaves users much poorer and puking into paper bags.