VR platform incompatibility: what if it doesn’t matter?

You might want to check this article again once we have some solid facts about VR software sales.

The more you read about the three soon to be released  ‘high-end’ virtual reality platforms, i.e., Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and (a bit later) Sony PlayStation VR, the more you learn about just how fragmented the VR software market can be expected to be as a result of the enormous range of different hardware-specific features and platform incompatibilities that they will produce and the unprecedentedly demanding support burden this would impose on any VR content developers and publishers who were hoping to be able to sell their content on multiple VR platforms.

It’s definitely looking as if Oculus, who made the first moves and garnered the most attention in this ‘new age of VR’ are already up against two VERY serious competitors with the both the HTC/Valve Vive and the Sony PlayStation VR getting some genuinely favourable (‘some aspects of this VR experience are at least as good as the Rift, if not better’) reviews from key pundits.

The Rift’s one unarguable (but in the context of this article, not necessarily unassailable) advantage?

Oculus will have a MUCH larger base of developers, because the Rift DK1 and DK2 (developer kits, first and second edition) have been out with them for years, and therefore, in theory, Oculus should have a much bigger base of content available at launch time.

But… (and these are the mega-questions that nobody seems to be tackling)

What if…

What if it turns out that VR content inter-platform portability (which, on the face of it looks like an absolute nightmare, because there are so many unique hardware-specific features which differentiate each of the different VR platforms) turns out NOT to be the ‘mountain to climb’ that it looks like ‘on paper’?

What if it turns out that the years of development that those early Rift developers have put in turns out to be ‘more easily portable’ to the other two VR platforms than anyone expected and therefore doesn’t actually give the Rift much of an edge after all? (or at least it might not give them a very long-lived edge, if the developers turn out to be able to port Rift content to other platforms more quickly and thus more inexpensively than expected).

What if the feature differences between VR platforms (despite being formidable) simply aren’t prohibitively work/cost/time intensive enough to end up discouraging developers from supporting all three makes (or at least one more platform than just the Rift)?

What if the developers, eager to get something other than kudos for all the thousands of (speculatively invested?) hours of effort they have poured into developing VR software, turn out (unrestricted by contractual obligations) not to have unwavering loyalty to Oculus, and will make their VR content run on each of the three platforms (not to mention making it run on the ‘untethered’ platforms like GearVR or even free ones like Google Cardboard, or Google’s next VR offering) just to hedge their bets or even just in an effort to scrape up enough revenue to keep going?

What if, even though it does indeed turn out that it does indeed involve a serious amount of work to overcome the seemingly enormous VR platform hardware incompatibilities, it also turns that out either surprisingly effective conversion tools or just sheer determination nonetheless ‘levels the playing field’ between the platforms, in terms of the potential timeliness and/or abundance of available software for each of them?

What if it turns out that Oculus parent Facebook has to ‘step in’ (and either provide substantial price subsidies for the Rift, and/or has to be prepared to pay handsomely for ‘exclusivity deals’ with VR software developers: a very risky proposition, because picking winners in a market with as many unknowns as VR software would make the notoriously unreliable vagaries of picking winners in the movie, TV or even ‘conventional’ video game business look like a sure thing by comparison) to claw back their original hoped-for market share/return on investment?

But who knows, just by making VR take off (on all/any VR platforms) and generate more Facebook usage (or more effective or lucrative advertising) may be enough of a payoff to justify their initial $2 billion investment in Oculus.

And that’s not to say that portability will only ever work in an Oculus competitor’s favour, because it’s also likely that those developing for other platforms will want the option of having their content run on the Rift.

Even if you are unshakably optimistic about VR, you would still find it tremendously difficult to predict exactly how the fragmentation aspect would affect the way this is all going to play out.

Although Oculus’s John Carmack has been telling us for some time that Augmented Reality (which allows you to seamlessly overlay real world and virtual visual experiences on top of one another) is even more technologically demanding than VR, which implies that anything near consumer priced products are further off into the future than VR, we are already beginning to see AR offerings looking impressive (Microsoft HoloLens, Magic Leap, Meta and CastAR) and these hold out the potential of being treated by consumers (and developers) as competing with VR for their budgets.

At this stage it’s probably a bit too early to ask whether any potential for portability of VR assets will have any bearing upon the AR content development or adoption pipeline (or vice-versa) because AR assets (both hardware and software) are at an earlier stage of development than VR content.

Unit sales per VR platform among these three could be as low as ‘much less than ten thousand a month’ each once the likely post launch surge (which could reasonably be expected to be between the low tens of thousands and as many as a few hundred thousand for any one/each of the three VR offerings in the first month of their availability).

Once the analysts have digested those figures (probably by the end of April/beginning of May at the earliest, after the first of the three, the Rift. launches in March) those eagerly anticipating the future of VR will finally have some facts, rather than fantasies, to chew on and we might also start getting some early insight into software sales and feedback on the impact of hardware incompatibility.

The photo with the square plug and round hole was found here: