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Is PlayStation VR Successful?

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When Sony launched the new PlayStation VR in October 2016, it was a welcome addition to the fast-growing virtual reality (VR) space. In contrast to the high-end VR headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, both of them selling for $599 or higher, the PlayStation VR offered a slightly more affordable option, priced at just $399. But even that price was nearly four times what you’d expect to pay for the Samsung Gear VR, easily the most popular VR headset on the market today.

Since the PlayStation VR launched in time for the all-important 2016 holiday buying season, the thought was that Sony would just sit back and watch all the sales roll in. To a great extent, though, the highly optimistic sales estimates have not materialized. The original estimate was for the PlayStation VR to sell 2.5 million headsets in 2016 alone. It turns out that the real figure was closer to 750,000 headsets. As of February 2017, according to the New York Times, the PlayStation VR has sold 915,000 units total — just south of 1 million headsets in about a single quarter. Not bad, but still not quite as many as Sony had originally projected.

Sony looks for first-mover advantage in the VR space

However, you can’t base success on sales alone. In general, the entire VR space has been undergoing a re-think over the past six months. In early 2016, VR was one of the hottest new areas of technology, as consumers eagerly awaited the arrival of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive — the first two high-end devices on the market. In contrast to the Samsung Gear VR, which only functions by putting your Samsung Galaxy phone inside, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were self-contained headsets meant to be tethered to a high-powered PC capable of rendering virtual worlds in glorious color and crispness.

In that regard, you can start to see the creation of a two-tiered market emerging for virtual reality. On one side, you have Oculus (owned by Facebook), HTC and Sony — they have essentially placed a bet that the future of VR will involve motion controllers, tracking cameras and high-powered PCs or gaming consoles. On the other side, you have Samsung and Google, both of which have opted for VR headsets that work with powerful mobile phones. (But in the case of the Google Daydream VR headset, it only works with a small number of compatible phones, like the Google Pixel.)

You’ll notice that a few big-name competitors aren’t represented here – Microsoft, Apple or Nintendo. That being said, Microsoft is said to be working on a combination AR/VR experience called the HoloLens and Apple is purportedly readying an augmented reality (AR) experience for the iPhone in either 2017 or early 2018. And Nintendo appears to be working on a VR headset for its upcoming gaming console.

So you can see the genius of the Sony move with PlayStation VR – it established itself as an early mover in a potentially lucrative marketplace. And Sony has opened up a big lead on its long-time rival, Nintendo. So, while Nintendo is busy creating augmented reality experiences for the smart phone (like Pokemon!), Sony is busy creating VR experiences for the PlayStation console.

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What needs to happen next for PlayStation VR

Four months after the launch of PlayStation VR, we now have a much better idea of where Sony needs to go with its new VR headset. One major complaint, voiced by many VR gamers, is that there simply wasn’t a must-have gaming title for the PlayStation VR. Without the one game or one experience that everyone wants to buy, it makes it very difficult to attract casual gamers or people who may be new to virtual reality. So if Sony is able to create the “Pokemon of VR,” it’s safe to say that the sales figures are going to look very impressive for the PlayStation VR in 2017.

The other major factor mentioned by gamers is that, while the headset itself was stylish and very futuristic-looking, you really needed to get the PSVR bundle (including gaming controllers and tracking camera) in order to have the full VR experience. That PSVR bundle is $499, a hefty increase from the $399 that you’d pay for the headset alone. As Sony explains, the company thought the major buyers of the headset would be gamers who already owned the console and one or more controllers, so they wanted to make it possible for them to just buy the headset.

But, in many ways, that also speaks to one other drawback – a sometimes mixed message when it came to the PSVR. For example, Sony told gamers that the VR experiences would work best for the PS4 Pro, and that confused many gamers – they interpreted that to mean that they should upgrade their console from the PS4 to the PS4 Pro BEFORE buying the VR headset. And then there’s the matter of what to do with all the controllers and cameras – as some gamers pointed out, it looked like Sony simply gathered together a lot of existing technologies and cobbled them together for VR. So there’s not one amazing technical breakthrough that people can point to and say – “Sony really nailed it.”

In fact, that seemed to be why there was a mixed response in the marketplace to the new Sony PSVR — the new VR headset seemed to work “just good enough,” the new games for VR seemed to work “just good enough” and the overall design and functionality of every VR experience was “just good enough.” But there wasn’t anything truly disruptive about the new Sony VR headset.

Bringing VR to the mass market

The one advantage that Sony has today is the ability to make VR a truly mass-market phenomenon, and not just a hobby for hard-core gamers. Sony has a lot of marketing muscle and it has a dedicated core of fans who already love the PS4. Plus, Sony has plenty of deals and agreements in place with gaming studios and film development companies – it seems like it’s just a matter of time before Sony is able to attract the casual fan to VR.

So, if you’re willing to judge success on not just sales and technological breakthroughs, but also on the ability to bring a new technology to the mainstream, then Sony most definitely has a success on its hands with the PlayStation VR. In 2017, look for the company to move even more aggressively into the mainstream consumer tech market. Just as Oculus briefly experimented with setting up demo lounges at Best Buy in order to win over casual tech buyers for its VR headset, it’s easy to see Sony embracing the same type of marketing move. Releasing the PS4 at the end of 2016 was a signal to the market and to the company’s fans: we’re committed to virtual reality for the long haul, so join us for the ride.

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