Sony announced today that it has sold 4.2 million PlayStation VR headsets since the headset launched on October 13, 2016. That’s a fair increase over last August when the company announced lifetime sales of 3 million units. It isn’t, however, all that many units overall. And that’s a bit concerning, given that the PS4 is coming to the end of its life. What will happen to Sony’s nascent VR market when it does?
One of the odd things about the console add-on market is that sales are no guarantee of success. Microsoft’s original Kinect was hugely successful by any measure. It sold 8 million units in 60 days and 24 million units by February 2013, prior to the launch of the Xbox One and its packed-in unit. Microsoft clearly thought it had a winner on its hands, to the point that it made the camera a core component of the Xbox One. Kinect hardware sold and sold well. What it didn’t do was have a lasting or meaningful impact on game design.
But if high sales don’t guarantee success, low sales surely doom it. Here, the picture is hazy. Sony has said that it is satisfied with VR sales, but hasn’t put a full-court press on pushing the technology, either. There has been no PSVR-equivalent to the PS4 Pro, for example, with higher resolution to match the increased horsepower of the console.
How Do Console Gamers and Companies Think About VR Headsets?
If Sony treats the PSVR like a typical console add-on it’ll sunset the peripheral with the console it launched with. The PSVR launched at $ 400 and currently runs $ 300. That’s significantly less than the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have cost over their lifetimes, particularly at launch. Sony could be betting that gamers will see VR the same way.
To be honest, though, I’m hoping they won’t. VR is a brand-new market with a limited player base and a small number of games. Whacking ‘reset’ on a market that’s so new seems like a recipe for fragmentation. Depending on Sony’s hardware launch timing, it could also mean asking existing VR players to quit playing in VR until a headset was ready for the PS5. A launch-day HMD would solve this problem but introduces another: high launch-day costs. A PS5 plus PSVR Next combination with a couple of games could easily be a $ 900 to $ 1,000 purchase. From Sony’s perspective, neither of these solutions is necessarily ideal.
What I’m hoping we might see instead is a smooth, backward-compatible path. The PS5 is, by all rumor, an x86-based machine designed by AMD. There’s no reason games that ran on the PS4 shouldn’t run even better on the PS5. There’s also no reason why peripherals that were supported by the PS4 couldn’t be supported by the PS5. And given that the original PSVR is a fairly low-end headset, with a resolution of 960×1080 per eye, there’s no reason to think retaining backward compatibility with it would hamper reception for a higher-end device. Even the first-generation Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer far more resolution than a PSVR; Sony has plenty of room to build and launch a better product.
Three years after the first headsets launched, we’re finally starting to see some second-generation PC products. Overall consumer uptake, however, has been weak. The commercial market is perceived as a stronger bet for both AR and VR, which is why companies like Microsoft and HP have been concentrating their bets in that area. Maintaining backward compatibility across the PS4-PS5 generation could help the market succeed. Question is, will Sony do it?