CES 2015: Virtual Reality Tries for Buzz

Many of the tech companies present at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas are pushing devices meant to take advantage of the nascent Internet of Things. But connected appliances and wearable electronics aren’t the only story at the show: A handful of firms are also showing off virtual-reality gear they hope will seize the popular imagination over the next few years.

Take Oculus VR, the virtual-reality firm, which is using its massive booth at CES to show off its “Crescent Bay” prototype; now a Facebook subsidiary, the company has long played evasive with when it plans to actually release a commercial version of its virtual-reality headset. Samsung is similarly using CES to demonstrate its own take on VR goggles, and a number of smaller firms are pushing all manner of VR accessories, development kits, and other goodies. (And what CES trend would be complete without an egregiously ugly example?)

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Despite the hype surrounding VR, however, there’s precious little sign that the public at large will adopt the medium as the next big thing in gaming or entertainment, much less business or productivity. Sure, firms such as Bloomberg have experimented with applications for Oculus; and yes, there is a lot of venture-capital money flowing into VR startups. But this very much remains a sub-industry in search of its iPhone, the must-have device or app that will ignite the imagination of millions.

The one item that might help popularize VR is, however ironically, also the lowest-tech: Google Cardboard, essentially a cardboard box that you strap onto your face; your Android smartphone, slid into a tray in front of the eye-holes, becomes your VR screen. Its relatively low cost (cardboard is virtually free, and many people already have an Android phone) could help it gain traction, provided the right set of games comes along.

But whether Cardboard will succeed, even on its own terms, is anyone’s guess. If you’re a developer who’s seriously considering whether to devote the time and resources to building for VR, and those resources are in short supply, you might be best served by waiting a bit longer to see whether the industry develops into something worth your efforts.

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Image: Oculus VR

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