2014 saw the arrival of perhaps the biggest catalyst for virtual reality: Facebook's $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR at the end of March. Confidence in VR's business viability was amplified overnight. It was not the only notable event, however. Both Sony and Samsung announced their own VR offerings, and the diversity of VR content in the works was more evident than ever.
As we ring in 2015, let's take a look at this nascent industry's journey through 2014, from the days when VR was mostly the domain of enthusiasts, to the Facebook deal, to the launch of Gear VR and influx of capital - albeit small compared to other tech sectors - near the end of this year.
The Oculus Rift had a very successful KickStarter campaign that ended in 2012, where it raised almost ten times more than its goal. Awareness surged when John Carmack - creator of the Doom and Quake video game series - became VR's most high-profile advocate at E3 2012. Although interest in VR was still mostly confined to video gaming by the end of 2013, TV viewers got a glimpse of the technology when Virtuix Omni went on Shark Tank. The Sharks did not invest at the time.
Virtuix's experience was echoed by the founder of Tactical Haptics, William Provancher. As he mentioned on a Voices of VR podcast, investors believed that VR was still "too early". Despite these sentiments, VR enthusiasts have been around for a few years: respected news outlets such as Road to VR has been in circulation for three years as of November 2014, before Oculus' KickStarter campaign.
In March 2014, Sony announced their own VR headset, "Project Morpheus". However, it is not as openly available to developers as the Rift. Only a limited number of developers has a development kit for it. We know that it is going to be used for the PS4, but it is not clear whether Sony will focus on games, or allow other types of apps on the Morpheus.
The Facebook Deal
When Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion dollars, it came as an unwelcome surprise to many in the core community. Reactions and speculations ran from Minecraft creator Notch's very negative, to measured approval.
Despite the negative sentiment, VR development accelerated. Developers started coming out of the woodwork, revealing their long-incubated or brand-new projects. Among them are critically-acclaimed work such as Elite: Dangerous by Frontier, Studio Ghibli experiences from Fire Panda's Nick Pittom, Technolust from Iris VR's Blair Renaud, Radial-G from Tammeka Games, among many others.
Facebook made it clear in their statement that they see applications for VR beyond gaming:
After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home.
The community agrees, and non-gaming VR applications from both before and after the deal have been gaining visibility: 360-degree films by Jaunt VR, paint tool Tiltbrush, design visualization firm IrisVR (not related to Iris VR, of Technolust fame) , horror film 11:57, documentary Zero Point, and many more. There are also journalistic efforts such as Nonny de la Pena's "Immersive Journalism", and medically-related projects such as Diplopia, a game for helping people with lazy eye. Even among games, there are titles seeking to provide different experiences than traditional genres: Eden River from Unello Design's Aaron Lemke, and Guided Meditation from Cubicle Ninjas seek to provide a soothing experience instead of adrenaline rushes.
Even investors seem to be looking at VR twice. Tactical Haptics' Provancher mentioned later in the Voices of VR podcast that the same investors began to see his product's potential after the Facebook deal. Although they told him to stay in touch "in case somebody else is really interested" in them.
What's in store for 2015?
Samsung's Gear VR goggles, which uses the Galaxy Note 4, was announced in September 2014 and launched in early December. It has a store through which developers can charge for their apps, starting some time 2015. It is the first platform from which VR developers can earn revenue directly, although it is still very much in Beta stage and not ready for mainstream consumers yet. It is still marketed towards VR developers.
The Gear isn't the only mobile headset in town. The Google Cardboard has, according to reports, shipped 500,000 units as of early December. Google is reportedly hiring for the Cardboard as well. Count on there being more apps for this headset. In fact, it is safe to say that more content in general - games or not - will appear regularly in 2015.
There has been an increase in investment activity in the last few months of 2014 as well. An investor challenge for VR startups took place in early December, and Rothenburg Ventures recently announced "River", a VR accelerator that provides a shared office and $100,000 to ten VR startups.
Last but not least, although there is still no official launch date for a consumer version of Oculus Rift, it is "months away", albeit "many months". Whether we will see the consumer version in 2015 or not, it is safe to say that we will see some news on its progress. The same can probably also be said for Sony's Project Morpheus, which Sony has steadfastly refused to divulge a release date.
Here's to a 2015 lived in virtual worlds! What are you looking forward to?