In a few short years, virtual reality has gone from something only a lucky few had tried in private demos to a consumer product advertised in prime time television (Samsung, Sony and Google all ran TV ads this year). Let's take a look back at VR's arrival on the scene in 2016.
The first consumer virtual reality headset arrived in late 2015, with the launch of the first Samsung Gear VR, a headset powered by one of a handful of Samsung flagship smartphones. But high-end VR didn't arrive until this past April, with the PC-based Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
Both Oculus and HTC had some issues out of the gate, with delayed shipments angering impatient early adopters. The order for one of our Rift review units, which was confirmed within a few minutes of pre-orders kicking off, didn't arrive at our door until a couple of weeks after Oculus said it would start shipping. The Vive faced similar early delays.
Both companies caught up to demand within a few months of launch, but sales appear to have been relatively tame and limited to early adopter enthusiasm. One research firm estimated HTC would end up shipping half a million Vives in 2016, with Oculus coming in behind at roughly 400,000 Rift shipments. Note, though, that the firm that published these estimates lists HTC, Samsung and Sony, which all sell VR headsets, as clients; neither Oculus nor parent-company Facebook was listed.
You may see the occasional internet ad for the Vive and Rift, but neither company has ventured into television advertising for the $600-800 systems (a figure that doesn't include the requisite $700+ gaming PC). While Samsung pushed the Gear VR with the holiday spot embedded above, consumer awareness still has plenty of room for growth.
When we first reviewed the two PC systems in April, the Vive received our highest recommendation: Its precise room-size tracking and bundled motion controls put the system's user experience in a different echelon from the Oculus Rift's, which spent most of the year only supporting gamepad titles.
In May, Google unveiled its consumer mobile VR platform, Daydream. The first compatible product, Google's own Daydream View, would launch in November for $79. The smartphone-based headset included a sleek, fabric design with a Wii-like remote in the box. While Daydream has loads of long-term potential, its content and compatibility at launch were humble: 12 games and two phones.
In August, Samsung revealed an updated version of the content-rich Gear VR with incremental changes and support for the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7. After that phone was recalled, the total count of Gear VR-compatible Samsung phones dropped from seven to six.
These cheaper, smartphone-powered VR headsets have (unsurprisingly) found a wider audience than expensive PC-based gear, with one firm estimating 2016 Gear VR sales to come in at around 2.3 million units. The firm's ballpark for Daydream View, which was sold for less than two full months in 2016, was 261,000 units.
Sony's long-anticipated PlayStation VR arrived in October, boosted by millions of requisite PS4s already in consumers' homes, along with a more-affordable $399 sticker price. While we found the headset itself to be a good value for this price range, its PS Move motion controls have highly-compromised tracking that fails to consistently maintain VR's core illusion of being somewhere else. The controller-tracking glitches made PSVR the first major VR headset that we couldn't recommend.
Sony's brand awareness, however, is leading the pack despite the product's flaws. Superdata research estimates that 28 percent of American consumers are "aware of" Sony PSVR, compared to 22 percent for the Oculus Rift, 21 percent for Gear VR and a mere 5 percent for Vive.
Sales estimates for PlayStation VR are also higher than the Rift's and Vive's, with Canalysis estimating 800,000 unit sales in its less-than-three months on the market. That number would have likely been much higher, were it not for supply constraints due to problems manufacturing the headset's OLED panels.
In early October, Oculus made some big changes to the Rift. Not only were its Touch motion controls set to launch for $199, but the company also added optional 360° tracking, experimental support for room-scale VR and virtual boundaries to prevent you from smacking into things while exploring larger spaces – all direct responses to the Vive. The company also launched a $50 pair of Rift earbuds that better isolates background noise and provides crisper, better-separated soundscapes in VR.
While the Rift's room-scale tracking wasn't as far-reaching or accurate as the Vive's, we found Oculus Rift with Touch to provide the best all-around user experience in VR, led by the ergonomic Touch controls and a wealth of exclusive content. Since the Facebook acquisition in 2014, Oculus has been aggressively funding VR content, often in exchange for Oculus Store exclusivity.
Facebook decided it was time for a change, though, as Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe announced in December that he was stepping down from his post to lead a new PC VR division within the company. Oculus and Facebook will search for a new CEO in the coming year.
Meanwhile Oculus founder Palmer Luckey (above), frequently paraded out by Facebook as the face of VR, has been exiled from public appearances and social media postings since late September. That's when he reportedly told The Daily Beast that he was behind a Reddit account boasting of funding a pro-Trump organization called Nimble America, which ran juvenile Hillary Clinton memes on billboards. One example showed the candidate's face with the words "Too Big to Jail" (the firm's motto: "Shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real"). Luckey later denied having authored the posts, but previous email exchanges published by the reporter appear to show the founder claiming they were his.
Even the escapist world of VR wasn't immune to the contentious U.S. election that dominated 2016's news cycles.
At Oculus' developer conference in October, Mark Zuckerberg spent 25 minutes presenting onstage, compared to four minutes the previous year, perhaps filling Luckey's typical demo slot. The Facebook CEO showed off upcoming social VR experiences for Rift/Touch that used lifelike avatars with facial expressions, allowing people on opposite sides of the world to interact as if they were in the same room.
At the conference, Oculus also made quick mention of a standalone VR headset that hits a "sweet spot" between cheap smartphone VR and expensive PC-tethered virtual reality. With inside-out tracking, the product wouldn't require any external sensors to follow neck-down movement. Zuckerberg, however, tempered expectations about the in-development product: "It's still early, so I don't want to get your hopes up too much."
After the Oculus Touch launch, we re-evaluated the HTC Vive (above) and found its content selection to be lacking. The vast majority of game releases after the system's April launch have been low-budget and indie passion projects: an oft-creative gaming tier, but not what you'd expect for a $1,500 system. This weakness is only accentuated when contrasted with Oculus' large pool of AAA-style Rift titles.
In this supposed "Year of VR," there were indeed plenty of happenings in the world of virtual reality, including four first-gen consumer launches and a second-gen update to another. But with 45 percent of Americans reportedly "never hearing about" VR, much more growth could come in the next several years. If VR ever becomes a household name, perhaps we'll look back at 2016 as the year virtual reality took its first step into the real world.