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What The VCR Can Teach Us About The Future Of Virtual Reality

We're about to see another format war play out.

24/02/2017 10:46 AM AEDT | Updated 24/02/2017 10:46 AM AEDT
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"Much like the videotape format war of old, the VR war looks set to be one of quality vs price."

Children of the '80s will remember the disappointment of taking their favourite movie, taped off the TV on your VCR, to a friend's place, only to discover their family had a Betamax.

Your friend's dad's explanation that "Beta really is the superior format" did little to quell the disappointment as you realised you wouldn't be fast-forwarding through all the ads in 'Ghostbusters' for the ninth time that week.

Thankfully, by the '90s, the videotape format war was all but over, VCR having secured the majority of the market. It was perhaps an odd outcome, as your friend's dad had been right all along -- Beta was technically the better performing unit.

So why did they lose? Cost and content.

Sony was the sole creator of the Beta for most of its history, meaning they set the price. By comparison, VCR creator JVC licensed its technology out to other companies, competition thus ensuring a lower price point, and giving customers the option of maintaining their brand loyalties.

As far as content goes, the original Betamax tapes could only record for one hour, nowhere near enough time for a sporting match or feature film. Sony clicked a little too late to the fact that no one cares about the picture quality if you don't get to see Dr Venkman and the gang battle the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. By the time Beta machines with comparable tape times came to market, the battle was all but lost.

Why the trip down memory lane? Because we're set to see another format war play out over the coming years, as companies scramble for dominance in the emerging virtual reality (VR) market.

Who are the combatants?

Some of the biggest tech companies in the world are drawing up battle lines, with Google, Samsung, Sony, HTC and Facebook -- via Oculus, the company it bought out in 2014 -- all having released VR headsets. (Rumours of Apple getting involved continue to swirl, and they have filed a number of patents, but at this stage they're keeping their powder dry.)

And, much like the videotape format war, the VR war looks set to be one of quality vs price.

Quality

Facebook and HTC are backing the idea the best possible immersive experience will be victorious, with both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive featuring headsets with OLED displays, controllers that give you interactive 'hands', and positional tracking so your full body movements are reflected in the virtual world.

The problem with quality, however, is that it doesn't come cheap, with both costing upwards of $US1,000 to ship to Australia. Furthermore, they both also require a pretty decent Windows-based computer to be anything more than weird-looking headgear.

Price

If you want a VR experience now, the Samsung Gear VR retails for around $150 and all you need is a Samsung Galaxy smartphone for it to work. It's also worth noting that Facebook are somewhat hedging their bets, with Gear VR being "Powered by Oculus", so if it turns out that people want the cheaper option, it won't be a page one rewrite for the social giants.

Google are also backing phone-based VR, preparing to take it to Samsung via the Daydream, which is set to start shipping in November and has been announced in the US as costing $80. Another point of difference is that it's made from breathable, washable fabric, making it lighter and more comfortable than its plastic-based competitors.

Neither Gear VR nor Daydream offer the kind of immersive experience that the Rift and Vive are capable of, but which do you think mums and dads are more likely to buy the kids for Christmas?

The middle ground

Sat between the two -- albeit far closer to the Rift and Vive -- is Sony's offering, PlayStation VR. While its specs are not quite as impressive as the HTC and Oculus efforts, at around $550, PlayStation VR is also half the price. Nor does it require a whizz-bang PC to function, being powered by the PS4, which these days will set you back less than $400.

Sony's stance is particularly noteworthy as, unlike the other companies, this isn't their first rodeo -- nor, indeed, their second.

After backing the wrong horse with Beta, they made damn sure not to lose again, with their Blu-ray Disc emerging victorious over HD DVD in the high-definition optical disc format war of the mid-2000s. A determining factor in that battle was Sony's decision to incorporate Blu-ray capabilities into the PlayStation 3 and selling the console at a loss. They played the long game, making up the initial shortfall by having the dominant format in the long term. Don't be surprised to see them do something similar to gain a toehold in the VR market.

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A woman wears a PlayStation VR headset.

What about the content?

Of course, the cost and quality of your platform is all for naught if you haven't got content consumers want to engage with.

HTC are off to a strong start, with the Vive created in collaboration with gaming giants Valve. But Facebook bought Oculus in the belief that the platform was going to be so much more than just a chance to live out gaming fantasies, with Mark Zuckerberg predicting VR would be "a new communication platform".

As an aside, there's a popular myth that the video format war was actually decided by the adult film industry's decision to go with VCR over Beta. True or not, there will be a sexual aspect to VR -- it could redefine long-distance relationships -- so the company that decides to grab the bull by the horns, in spite of the likely perception of being smut peddlers, could well gain a strong advantage.

And the joker in the pack is user-generated content. As 360 cameras become affordable, some of the best content available will come from punters who happened to be recording in the right place at the right time. That could well sway things in favour of the cheaper options.

So who's going to win?

It's a bit early to predict which company will be the gold standard of VR. Indeed, it's too soon to say if we're even going to consider it a single format.

So, at risk of being labelled a cop-out, the real winner is going to be the consumer.

Some of the biggest R&D budgets in the world are being rolled into VR, meaning it will come down in price rapidly, and with gaming, social, search, entertainment and tech companies involved, the content on offer is set to be broad and brilliant.

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