2020 is best summarised as a continuation of the trends from 2019 – mostly. Cheaper and high-quality virtual reality (VR) headsets rolled out in 2020, advertising specifications that either improves the quality of experiences, increases the quality of virtual worlds, or both. VR in 2021 will continue the same progression, as the rate of innovation speeds up over time.
But the big mask-wearing elephant in the room is the global pandemic. All predictions about 2020 have been dashed and ruined, as the whole world adapted to a half-operating economy and a climbing death toll. At the same time many companies climbed into the discussion to explore how it presented a new opportunity for VR to show its worth. Instead of meeting in person, why not in VR? Instead of meeting in a public park, why not a virtual world? Let us find out.
Oculus Quest 2 and consumer VR
Though the Oculus Quest 2 released in 2020, Facebook’s headset will likely remain as the go-to headset for VR in 2021. It offers the most cost-effective option for casual browsers who want to dip their hands into the virtual waters. The headset is lighter than the original Oculus Quest, with a better resolution and more powerful components – all for £100/$100 less than its older sibling. A compelling package for most people, and it will continue to sell well into 2021.
Meanwhile, tethered PCs are becoming less fashionable. A standalone experience is much easier to war and use, without the hassle of setting up with a powerful PC or laptop to access games and art. Oculus is discontinuing the Oculus Rift S in 2021, likely because the Quest 2 can serve the same function if users connect to a PC via an Oculus Link cable. While the HTC VIVE Cosmos can be played in tethered, the company also sells an untethered adaptor to help users disconnect from their PCs. The HP Reverb 2 will likely be one of the last tethered VR headsets to be announced and released, as the benefits of standalone remain clear.
The downside of standalone is graphical power; a disadvantage that improves over time. Many headsets use mobile phone components, working in conjunction with fans to keep it cool. As mobile phone chips improve, so will the potential of VR headsets that use the same bits and bytes.
Will the global pandemic impact VR?
Many companies espoused the benefits of VR for people who needed to remain at home, providing services that offered immersive communities or collaboration spaces. HTC offered its own suite of services, for example, while VRChat boomed in popularity. Enterprise companies made their value clear: if people cannot collaborate in offices, consider other immersive opportunities.
The big question is whether these trends will still impact VR in 2021. How many people will collaborate in VR spaces, and will immersive festivals stick around? While hard to predict, the communities formed in 2020 will likely stick around, as they formed a strong bond. Festival who needed to build virtual versions of their festivals, while innovative, may breathe a sigh of relief that they can offer offline versions in late 2021. Virtual versions may stick around as an additional revenue option and to boost attendance numbers for prospective advertisers – but building virtual worlds is incredibly difficult for time-strapped professionals. (In this area, VRRoom have done amazingly).
Taken together, normality will mean that VR services will retreat a little. But the people that will sick around in a post-pandemic world will be the communities formed under the stress and restrictions of lockdown life.
Upcoming VR headsets in 2021
2020 has been a great year for VR headsets, with a few standout options available for casual shoppers and enterprise customers alike. The Oculus Quest 2 is a strong contender for consumer VR, but other typed of tethered headsets offer great experiences. The Valve Index, for example, offers knuckle controllers that blow others out of the water. The HP Reverb 2, made in collaboration between HP, Microsoft, and Valve, offers a range of services that work well for both consumer and enterprise applications, and will remain strong as an offer in 2021. Will there be a new headset next year? Perhaps, but Facebook may be focusing on its augmented reality (AR) offering in 2021, such as its collaboration with Luxottica and its testing of Project Aria.
On the enterprise side, the XR-3 and VR-3 by Varjo should appear in the market in 2021 to offer an incredibly high resolution and FoV for people to use in more corporate uses. Though expensive, they offer a great way for companies to train and educate their workers.
In any case, here is a list of upcoming VR headsets in 2021:
- Varjo’s VR-3 and XR-3;
- DecaGear’s PC VR headset;
- The PlayStation VR 2 (rumoured).
Is phone VR worth it in 2021?
While the discussion is dominated by dedicated VR headsets, many people may wonder about the viability of using smartphones to access experiences. Many 360-degree films do not need an expensive headset to access; just a smartphone that can either be slotted into a cardboard headset or raised to eye-level. Several film festivals catered to this; London Film Festival presented it as an option, allowing some people to access a selection of works that were compatible with the approach.
Phone VR will still be used in 2021, but it will gradually be weened off over time. As VR headsets get cheaper and cheaper, with better graphics, then there is less need to cater to the mobile phone market. Still, it offers the most cost-effective and easiest way to access a small selection of immersive works.
Should I buy a new VR headset now, or wait?
The short answer is that now is a good time to buy a VR headset. The typical pain points of most shoppers – price, content, and quality – have largely been addressed, opening a new world for anyone to hop in. While the Oculus Go is discontinued, the Oculus Quest 2 offers exceptional value for its price. Though it cannot run all experiences – an Oculus link is required to run PC-based games – it still services a great array of top-quality titles.
Shoppers should also bear in mind why they are buying a headset to begin with. If it is to play the next generation of VR games, then it is a good time to hop in. Tetris Effect remains the best version of the titular game made, while Beat Saber has not lost its charm. Fitness is particularly effective; FitXR offers a range of exercises that help boost the cardio of users, perfect for when people at home. For entertainment and getting fit, VR is in a great place for anyone to get started.
One area to be more aware of is casual education (as opposed to enterprise training). With the variety of free tools and services available online, the argument for VR in education is harder to defend. Yes, immersive experiences lead to a greater impact of the learning material – scientific research demonstrates that conclusion. But spending hundreds of pounds on the tool, when other great options are already available, is harder to justify. In any case, VR in 2021 looks to be a very strong year.