At the GamesBeat Summit 2016, while industry luminaries covered many topics large and small, there was one that almost all of them addressed at some point—virtual reality (VR). The interest and excitement around both VR and AR (augmented reality) continues to exert a gravitational pull within the games industry, luring investors and developers to see how they might position themselves to take advantage of these devices.
However, not everyone is unabashedly positive about VR right now; a few of the industry visionaries are somewhat wary of VR at this point. “Love it, not ready for prime time right now,” said Neil Young, CEO of N3twork, when asked about the state of VR. “There’s going to be some train wrecks in terms of companies that have committed themselves, hoping there’s going to be a big business in the next eighteen months, and that doesn’t materialize. Medium to long-term, that I see.”
On the other hand, some long-time visionaries see great things ahead. “VR and AR will lead to a much more visceral and believable experience than ever before—I think that will be the most competitive and innovative platform ever launched. I think it’s the future of media and entertainment,” said Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games. It’s worth noting that Epic’s Unreal Engine is one of the prime development tools for VR and AR applications, so Sweeney certainly has vested interest in this area. It’s also worth noting that Sweeney talks to many developers about how they use Unreal Engine, which also informs his position.
On the publisher side, there’s both interest and caution about VR. “We think it’s incredibly interesting, and there’s things we’ve done as a company that have touched the surface, especially with our advertising partners,” said Peter Phillips, executive vice president and general manager, interactive and digital distribution for Marvel Entertainment. “It’s marketing focused, and there’s a marketing focus around the film that opens Friday [Captain America: Civil War]. In terms of what’s the big win, how do we integrate it down the road, as the consumer base really absorbs it, we’re spending an awful lot of cycles to learn more about it and figure out how to act on it. There’s a lot of work being done on it across the Disney company, and that’s probably as much as I can say.”
“But I do think it’s going to be something that is incredibly rich, especially for gaming,” Phillips continued. “I just can’t imagine that we wouldn’t have some really fantastic experiences with it. We’ve done stuff already, in terms of our Comic-Con event, interviews and things like that with 360 cameras and some of the opportunities to enrich those experiences. But they’re spots in a larger set of coverage. That’s a good way to see VR start; that’s where our modeling is.”
Taking the analytic approach is Digi-Capital’s Tim Merel. “VR could be big. AR could be bigger, and take longer to get there. There’s almost as much confusion as there is excitement about the market,” said Merel, who is now also leading VR/AR startup EyeTouch Reality. “One of the big questions is business models. How are folks going to make money from all of this? Hardware, e-commerce sales, mobile data and advertising could generate over 80 percent of all revenue for AR and VR in five year’s time. It’s not all about games.”
“We think there will be in the low single digits hundreds of millions of units installed base of AR and VR in five year’s time, everything from solutions like Google Cardboard to Magic Leap, from price points ranging from free to around similar prices of today’s smartphones,” Merel noted. He pointed to a key indicator of one VR area that’s going to be big. “Why would a Chinese e-commerce company [Ali-Baba] pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a Florida hardware startup with no sales [Magic Leap]? They believe, like we believe, that e-commerce could be the largest non-hardware revenue stream from AR and VR, taking two dollars out of every ten dollars by AR and VR in 2020.”
Merel believes that the marketing value of VR and AR will be huge in coming years. “Then we get into advertising, and as the market scales into hundreds of millions of users, the advertisers will come in at scale as well,” Merel said. “We think that will generate one dollar for every ten dollars in 2020.” Of the possible business models, he believes that the bulk of the content on mobile will be free, supported by in-app purchases or subscriptions similar to those of Hulu, Netflix and Spotify for premium content or an ad-free experience. At the same time, high-end experiences like games could generate $10 billion by 2020.
John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity Technologies, talked about the “gap of disappointment” last year when referring to VR. “A lot of industry analysts have a straight line of about seven or eight billion dollars in forecast revenue in VR for this year to 2020 where they put about $100 billion on it,” said Riccitiello. “I think what they’ve largely done is apply a smartphone adoption model to it, which is a heavily carrier-subsidized model. You had a $700 device in your pocket that you paid $30 for. That subsidization model is pretty massive. By the time these products come to the market, they were very, very well executed. The truth for VR this year is that, from a hardware perspective and a software perspective, it’s a masking tape and twine year. These things are barely making it to the shelf; they are barely making it to the consumer.”
“Now, they are magical things, and I’m a giant bull on the long-term opportunity for VR and AR, but I think these revenue forecasts in the early years are too high,” Riccitiello went on. “I think they’re going to miss their numbers in 2016 by 80 percent, and they’re going to miss them again in 2017 by 60 percent or more. Now, in the fullness of holograms dancing on your coffee table, $120 billion is not enough to describe that marketplace. That is coming, but it’s a longer-term market. The hardware’s not there, and it’s way too expensive to really attract a mass market in the near term. In mobile, it’s going to give you a good experience, but it’s not a good enough experience to really hit that point. In regard to the ‘gap of disappointment,’ if the analysts are like this and the reality is like this, it’s only a matter of time before people say ‘oh, it didn’t happen, this was a waste of time.’ We’re going to get that, but it’s going to recover.”
Riccitiello said the industry will need to push back against stories that will appear when VR and AR don’t meet early forecasts, because after a time, VR will catch up and surpass those expectations. Regardless of the exact time that VR and AR take to achieve market greatness, the one thing all these observers agree on is that VR and AR are destined to be very important parts of media and entertainment future.