Cheap, lousy VR knockoffs risk harming the whole market

HTC’s VR head says that with decent headsets still carrying hefty price tags, consumers could be turned off by low-end also-rans

woman wearing HTC Vive VR headset.

A visitor using the HTC Vive VR headset at the 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty)

HTC, maker of the Vive virtual reality headset, is worried about the proliferation of cheap VR products that will soon flood the market.

“We’re not afraid of competition, we’re afraid of bad VR,” says Raymond Pao, vice-president of VR new technology at HTC. “That’s the biggest problem with VR now.”

Inexpensive headsets, especially the raft expected from Chinese manufacturers, run the risk of harming the overall market, he added. Poor graphics, uncomfortable hardware and an improperly calibrated experience that can make users feel nauseous are likely to turn people off the emerging technology.

HTC, along with Sony and Facebook-owned Oculus, represent the high-end vanguard of virtual reality. Oculus released its long-awaited Rift headset last month, followed by Taiwan-based HTC this month. Both products are relatively expensive, costing $599 (U.S.) and $799, respectively, and require costly, turbo-charged PCs to run.

Sony’s PlayStation VR, due in October, is cheaper at $399 but still requires a PlayStation 4 console.

A host of less-powerful and less-expensive options are becoming available, some costing as low as $100.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion on the future of VR in Shenzhen, China, on Tuesday, Pao talked about how much work HTC and the other high-end VR purveyors have ahead of them in selling consumers on the technology.

Like most new gadgets, VR will have to overcome consumer skepticism. Quality VR is also a relatively expensive proposition for now, which is going to make it more difficult to show off to the masses.

It is, however, one of those technologies that really does need to be experienced before it can be bought into.

One poor experience, of which there will likely be many, is likely all it will take to turn consumers off, Pao said.

“People will not pay a cent for something that’s going to make them sick.”

VR hardware and software makers are also going to have to adjust the design of their products to work well with the new medium.

Old input methods such as mice and keyboards are likely going to contribute to poor experiences, said Chu Hanjin, director of content alliances and solutions for AMD’s Radeon Technology Group.

“I can definitely say that’s going to cause sickness.”

Paul Gray, principal analyst at IHS Research, said inexpensive mobile VR such as Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR has the potential to entice consumers to the more high-end headsets, but it also risks putting people off it.

“The experience gets poisoned” with poor video quality, he said.

VR ultimately isn’t a short-lived bubble, nor is it the next big thing, he added. IHS expects market growth to be slow and steady, with an install base of 38 million headsets worldwide by 2020.