Business / Tech | FOCUS

Console makers banking on virtual reality

by Keiichiro Otsuka

Kyodo

Gaming console maker Sony Corp. is betting big on virtual reality, with a new headset and a slew of games set for release later this year, while rival Microsoft Corp. is also developing its own hardware to make use of the immersive technology.

Shawn Layden, president of Sony Interactive Entertainment America, touted the company’s upcoming PlayStation VR in June just prior to the E3 video games trade show in Los Angeles.

The headset is scheduled to hit shelves in Japan for ¥44,980 (about $450) and for $399 in the United States on Oct. 13, along with game titles based on “Star Wars” and “Batman” movies. Square Enix’s action role-playing game “Final Fantasy XV” and Capcom’s horror game “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” will also be added later.

Once connected to the PlayStation 4 console, the headset will enable a user to experience a three-dimensional world and interact with that environment during a game.

According to British market research firm Euromonitor, global annual sales of virtual reality gaming consoles amounted to about 2 million units in 2015 and are expected to grow to 25 million units by 2020.

PlayStation VR is likely to lead the way in expanding the virtual reality gaming market, according to game information website VGChartz. PlayStation 4’s cumulative sales are 40.75 million units worldwide, far surpassing those of Microsoft Xbox One’s 21.11 million units and Nintendo Wii U’s 13.14 million units.

Sony Interactive Entertainment is poised to roll out a 4K-capable version of PlayStation 4 that provides a resolution roughly four times as detailed as that of a full high-definition console — a feature well-suited to virtual reality gaming.

Microsoft is also setting its sights on virtual reality, having announced a product tentatively called Project Scorpio, a console with high-fidelity virtual reality that will be available in time for the Christmas 2017 shopping season.

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, was brimming with confidence about the new product, saying it will be the “most powerful console ever built.”

At E3, Sony Interactive Entertainment set up a hands-on exhibit of PlayStation VR. Facebook-owned Oculus, which had earlier been selling virtual reality consoles, also introduced its software.

“I think VR is really interesting. It’s super exciting and fun,” said Munika Lay, a film studio executive who experienced the “Blaze Rush” racing game at the Oculus booth. “I was really able to enjoy playing with and against other people.”

Opinions are divided as to whether virtual reality will develop into a major feature of the gaming industry.

Glen Egan, president and CEO of Sanzaru Games Inc., which provided a sports game for Oculus, predicted virtual reality will establish itself as a gaming mainstay.

On the other hand, Sony Interactive Entertainment President Andrew House said that while pre-order receipts for PlayStation VR were higher than anticipated, it is premature to judge whether virtual reality will enter the mainstream of gaming.

In a similar vein, Square Enix President Yosuke Matsuda expressed doubt about how quickly virtual reality would spread, though he believed it could eventually make an impact on the market.

“If virtual reality becomes more popular by, for example, enabling users to enjoy music or sports games as if they were at a live concert hall or at a sports venue, then it will be more popular in gaming, too,” he said.

A key factor that may determine virtual reality gaming’s growth will be Nintendo Co., one of the main game console producers along with Sony Entertainment and Microsoft.

Nintendo has traditionally excelled at games easy to play with family members and friends, and has thus distanced itself from virtual reality.

However, the sudden death a year ago of President Satoru Iwata left the company’s game development to his successor Tatsumi Kimishima, an erstwhile banker who “could change course and dive into virtual reality” amid poor performance stemming from slack sales of game consoles, an industry source said.

Nintendo plans to put a new game console NX into the market next March in Japan and abroad, but it is unknown yet if it will use virtual reality technology.