One day in December, Sylvio Drouin found himself crammed with about 35 other people in a Paris apartment to celebrate a documentary called “Surviving Progress.” The film — whose title in French translates to “If Technology is the Answer, Then What is the Question?” — is a critique on modern society and the tech industry, which is always trying to sell us a new gadget.
The apartment was filled with people carrying flip-phones and saying things like “technology has no purpose.” That was tough for Drouin to hear, seeing that he works at Unity Technologies, a San Francisco-based company whose programs help developers create apps and games.
So Drouin pulled out his phone, plopped it into the Google Cardboard headset he had in his bag and let partygoers peer inside. What they saw was a 360-degree video that made them feel like they were in a helicopter above New York, more than 3,000 miles away. By the end, people were asking how they could get their own VR headset.
“Until you try it, you’re skeptical of it,” Drouin said, chuckling as he tells the story.
You know who’s not skeptical? The $80 billion video game industry. It looks toward the future and what it sees is VR. This vision will be on full display at the Game Developers Conference 2016, set for next week at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center. There are so many VR-related discussions on tap that a portion of the week has been renamed VRDC, or Virtual Reality Developers Conference.
That’s pretty impressive when you consider VR was barely mentioned just four years ago. That was before a startup called Oculus VR surprised the industry with a successful Kickstarter campaign in the summer of 2012, raising more than $2.4 million in 31 days. The enthusiasm for Oculus and its potential drew the attention of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, which bought the company for $2 billion in 2014. That was well before Oculus even had a product to sell.
Now it feels like every major company is trying to sell you goggles that effectively strap a screen to your face and transport you to a computer-generated world.
Google already offers Cardboard, which starts at $15. Cardboard, which requires a separate phone, is used by publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as well as by entertainment and communications companies. Samsung released its Gear VR goggles in November for $99, not including the cost of a phone. Oculus’ Rift device, which doesn’t require a separate phone, will go on sale March 28 for $599. HTC’s Vive headset and controllers, which likewise will not need a phone, will come a month later for $799. Sony plans to start selling the PlayStation VR sometime this year, though the company hasn’t said when or for how much.
Video game developers are in. Nearly half of the 2,000 game developers surveyed by UBM Game Network said in a survey released earlier this year that they’re interested in creating titles using VR, up from about 37 percent last year. What’s more, game developers are more interested in developing for VR than they are in making their games run on traditional consoles like Sony’s PlayStation or mobile devices like the Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy Tab.
At VRDC, they plan to discuss audio and video storytelling, how to make ever-more realistic characters and the best way to build apps for different devices. For developers like Jacob Rangel, founder of Museville, such conferences offer an opportunity to swap ideas and try new tools and technology to help them build even better games and apps. “It’s an interesting time for any developers,” he said.
Whether consumers will buy these devices is still an open question. Samsung hasn’t said how many Gear VR goggles it has sold so far. But the lack of solid evidence hasn’t stopped industry analysts from predicting sales in the hundreds of billions of dollars in a few short years.
Nick DiCarlo, Samsung’s vice president of immersive products and virtual reality, said that Gear VR “has had an amazing response since its initial launch” and that the “momentum behind Gear VR is growing rapidly.” He added users have spent “significant play and viewing” time on the VR system.
“We aren’t done yet, there is still much work to do, and it is still early days. But we are very pleased with the progress to date,” DiCarlo said.
A long time coming
The idea of VR has been around for decades. In science fiction, the tech was depicted in movies like Disney’s “Tron” in 1982 and a decade later in “The Lawnmower Man.” In the real world, VR pioneers like Jaron Lanier’s VPL Research introduced VR to the tech industry — before going bankrupt in the 1990s. In the mid-’90s, Nintendo released and then pulled its Virtual Boy goggles and games, which lasted less than a year on the market.
Tommy Palm, co-founder of Swedish developer Resolution Games, said all the excitement around the VR industry reminds him of the phone industry just before Apple’s App Store launched. After years of research, VR devices can finally deliver on the dream that sci-fi has teased for years.
“Now all that’s needed is great content,” Palm said.
He and many others are already working on that. Nearly a fifth of respondents to UBM’s survey said they’re building VR titles. Amitt Mahajan, founder of venture fund Presence Capital, likes to hear this because more apps and games means more people will buy VR goggles and gear. “With so many developers building content for it, it’s more likely to succeed,” he said.
That’s what Unity’s Drouin will be hoping too, when he joins 26,000 others at the Game Developers Conference.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
CNET’s Shara Tibken contributed to this report.