2016 is the year of alternate reality gaming. This year, a number of major companies will be launching their own peripherals that will move game players away from their televisions and monitors.
In March, Oculus VR will launch the first shipments of the consumer model Oculus Rift. Built for Windows PCs, the Oculus Rift seeks to be bring virtual reality to the masses. Unfortunately, the $599 price tag and high PC system requirements means the Rift will probably be for early adopters only at this point. Intrigued developers have had Oculus Dev Kits for two years now and Oculus VR is touting more than 100 titles coming for the Oculus Rift by the end of 2016. Pre-orders for the Oculus Rift launched yesterday, with shipping dates pushed back to June 2016 at this point.
Valve and HTC are also working on the HTC Vive virtual reality headset. While the Oculus Rift is meant to be a stationary VR platform, letting the user play in an office or smaller space, the Vive is meant to be a full-room experience. The current version of the hardware, the HTC Vive Pre, was shown at CES 2016 this week and now sports a night vision-style pass-through camera so players can see the world around them. The demo of the Vive I experienced had me actually walking around a cleared space to interact with virtual objects.
The HTC Vive will probably end up being a more expensive VR platform than the Oculus Rift, but will be able to play similar experiences. Since the Oculus Rift is $599, you can probably expect the Vive to run around $700-800. The HTC Vive is expected to have pre-orders available by the end of February with a planned commercial launch in April 2016.
Sony Computer Entertainment is creating a virtual reality headset for the PlayStation 4, formerly code-named project Morpheus and currenty called PlayStation VR. PSVR should run with the same featureset as the Oculus Rift, but built to work with the 35.9 million PS4s that consumers already own worldwide. Sony CEO Kaz Hirai told BBC today that PlayStation VR is expecting to have "100 or more" titles, with 200 developers already signed up to work with the hardware. A recently-released report from SuperData Research touts a $400-600 price window for the hardware and Sony is expecting to launch PSVR in 2016.
Finally, Microsoft has the HoloLens technology coming this year. It's worth noting that the HoloLens is augmented reality, not virtual reality. HoloLens projects objects onto the real world similar to the 3DS' AR Games, instead of presenting the player with a completely virtual world. Unlike the virtual reality headsets above, HoloLens will require different game experiences and Microsoft's experiments with the technology are rather early. Interested developers can pick up a HoloLens development kit for $3,000 in early 2016.
While Microsoft showed off the HoloLens with Minecraft and Halo demos, I'm currently seeing the technology as more suited to business and enterprise purposes, projecting pertinent information over real-world objects. In fact, there's no word on when the average consumer can expect to pick up a HoloLens. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called the HoloLens a "five-year journey", so we may not be seeing it anytime soon.
Of course, there's the potential of Microsoft getting some version of the Oculus Rift on Xbox One. Every Rift already comes with an Xbox One controller, so there's an existing partnership between Microsoft and Oculus VR. While Oculus is clearly focused on a premium experience for launch, they may allow a diminished VR experience on Xbox One.
Where Does Nintendo Go?
Which leaves... Nintendo. Nintendo is currently planning out its NX console and the company hasn't even given us a firm release window. We really don't know what form the NX will take, though rumors have pointed to a merging of Nintendo's portable and home console lineups in a single device. Why? Well for Nintendo's domestic region of Japan, the home console is fallen off in recent times, whereas in the West home consoles still enjoy strong sales. A hybrid system could appeal to both markets.
Nintendo may be reticent to try something odd after the Wii U failed to take off, but current Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima told Time that the NX will be quite different.
"As far as NX goes, I've said it's different and obviously a new experience," Kimishima said to Time. "If you look back to the beginning of our conversation today, we talked about the transition from Wii hardware to the Wii U hardware and how difficult it is to explain to the consumer base what is different and new about the new hardware. It's difficult to convince them to switch from their current platform to the next platform."
"That being said, I can assure you we're not building the next version of Wii or Wii U. It's something unique and different. It's something where we have to move away from those platforms in order to make it something that will appeal to our consumer base."
A patent filed by Nintendo in June 2015 and published in December, featured an elliptical controller-like device with two analog sticks set in a touch-screen display panel. That's done via Sharp's free-form display technology, allowing the company to create non-standard touch-screens. While the controller would feature shoulder buttons and a card slot, there are no physical face buttons. Instead, the touch-screen is supposed to create context-sensitive buttons on the fly.
We don't know if this patent is just related to the NX or if it's the entirely of the experience. It's possible that this may be a controller that works as a portable unit, but one that also connects to standard home console.
If this patent is related to the NX, it's rather likely Nintendo will not pursue virtual reality in any way, shape, or form. With a virtual reality headset, you wouldn't be able to see the context-sensitive buttons on the controller/portable. You'd essentially be flailing in the dark, which wouldn't be a precise experience. Hence, it wouldn't be Nintendo. Nintendo would be leaving behind the possibility of virtual reality completely in order to chase after its own unique play experience.
Nintendo's done virtual reality and augmented reality before though. The company's Virtual Boy was one of the earlier attempts at consumer-grade VR experiences. Augmented reality factored into the early 3DS demo and the long-forgotten AR Games on that handheld.
Two years ago at E3 2014, Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto commented on virtual reality, calling it antithetical to the experiences that Nintendo was trying to create with the Wii U. I'd argue that general focus hasn't changed for the company.
"As game designers, we at Nintendo are interested in VR technology and what it can do, but at the same time what we're trying to do with Wii U is to create games for everyone in the living room," Miyamoto told Time. "We want the Wii U to be a game system that brings video gamers into the living room."
"When you think about what virtual reality is, which is one person putting on some goggles and playing by themselves kind of over in a corner, or maybe they go into a separate room and they spend all their time alone playing in that virtual reality, that's in direct contrast with what it is we're trying to achieve with Wii U. And so I have a little bit of uneasiness with whether or not that's the best way for people to play," he added. "So from Nintendo's perspective, there's interest in the technology, but we think it might be better suited to some sort of attraction style of entertainment, say something at a video game arcade or things like that, rather than something that one person plays alone."
Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime had similar sentiments at E3 a year later.
"We have knowledge of the technical space, and we've been experimenting with this for a long, long time," Fils-Aime told Polygon. "What we believe is that, in order for this technology to move forward, you need to make it fun and you need to make it social. I haven't walked the floor, so I can't say in terms of what's on the floor today, but at least based on what I've seen to date, it's not fun, and it's not social. It's just tech."
Which is to say, while everyone else is chasing virtual reality, I think Nintendo will continue to go its own way. VR looks to be the next "thing" for manufacturers and developers, but for better or for worse, Nintendo will probably eschew that trend.
We're still wondering when Nintendo will reveal and launch the NX to the world. The current guesses are for more information in 2016 and a launch in 2017, but Nomura Securities analyst Junko Yamamura recently surmised that Nintendo will reveal the console's focus in the March-May window, unveil the console in June at E3, and launch it this holiday season in Japan. I think that's a bit of a rush and if the NX experience is that unique, developers need more time to play around with it.
Either way, Nintendo is Nintendo. If everyone's going towards virtual reality, they're probably going in the opposite direction.