Modular VR might be the way forward - at least for Vive

A platform of incremental upgrades could prove more fruitful
Modular VR could be the way forward

Who's selling the most VR headsets right now? Depends who you ask. With all the big companies refusing to divulge numbers, we've come to rely on the estimates of analysts: mobile VR is having a great time, but high-end virtual reality is more of a slow burner. What is certain is that, from the tech to the games to the marketing, the big players are approaching VR quite differently.

Back at CES HTC revealed something called the Vive Tracker, an attachment that can essentially turn any object into a Vive controller. We tried it affixed to a baseball bat and nearly broke a wall; another developer made a pair of gloves with a tracker on each, giving us full uninhibited use of our hands in the virtual world. Someone even stuck one on a firehose - yes, really.

The Trackers cohere with the modular approach HTC and Valve appear to be taking with the Vive ecosystem. This too includes the new wireless adapters and promise of new controllers on the horizon, and the fact Valve announced last year that it will provide licences for third parties to use its tracking tech to build other SteamVR-compatible hardware.

It seems more and more as though HTC is approaching VR with customisation in mind, but is that a good thing? I threw the question to Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moore Insights & Strategy who specialises in VR.

"I genuinely believe that HTC is moving towards a modular approach," he said. "They're making the VR headset like a PC, where if you're a gamer you can buy a gaming PC and when better parts come out you can upgrade it."

Read next: Why HTC isn't building the Vive 2, but creating an ecosystem

This tactic would let people make a large one-off investment and then continue to upgrade different parts as they wish; the quality of experience would never be reduced, but they'd have the option to incrementally improve the their VR over time. It really digs into the psyche of the PC gamer.

"I think they're trying to create this really modular platform where the headset is compatible with newer Lighthouse trackers and newer controllers," said Sag. "I think they'll launch them individually."

And, crucially, it would mean spending less money in the long run as you don't have to go buy an entirely new system every couple of years. High-end VR means a high-end price tag right now, and as alluring as virtual escapism is in these troubling times, the prospect of spending $800 for the technology - and that's not factoring in the PC - is considerably less so.

Breaking up

Of course if modular is the way forward it also poses the problem of fragmentation. In these early days where VR is taking time to get off the ground this seems particularly risky; people want VR to be as simple as possible.

Maybe if the platform is strong enough, this won't matter, though Sag agreed with me that the controllers pose the "biggest problems in terms of buttons". Valve teased the next generation of Vive controllers at October's Steam Dev Days, and recently told me that they're still on track for a release. The prototype goes far beyond the Vive's current wand controller, letting users open and close their hands and therefore grip objects in-game. This would open up a lot of new possibilities for developers, but it would also mean people who don't buy the new controllers would be left behind.

Modular VR could be the way forward - at least for Vive

So what of the others? Facebook and Oculus have a more closed ethos right now, and Facebook clearly sees a bright future in mobile VR. "When you look at the way Oculus CV1 is built, its not really intended to be modular," said Sag. The package certainly feels more tightly integrated, and that may turn out to be a better approach for mainstream success - though seriously Facebook, where are all the TV commercials?

And when you start talking about console VR that too becomes a different conversation. The biggest draw of PS VR is that, much like the PS4 itself it's a plug-and-play device. With the PS4 boasting a 50 million-strong install base, premium VR becomes attainable for a lot more people.

It's hard to predict how virtual reality is going evolve and how quickly, but you need only look at the once-hailed-revolutionary Steam Machines to see how Valve's bet on the wrong hardware before. But it feels like Valve and HTC are backing the Vive much harder, not to mention that virtual reality is an inherently more exciting technology - so maybe it's unfair to compare the two at all.

Gabe recently told Polygon that Valve is "pretty comfortable with the idea that it will turn out to be a complete failure." It seems unlikely that VR will fail this time around, but the Vive is forging an interesting, and unique, path. I'm excited to see how it plays out.



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