It's been a decades-long journey for virtual reality, and 2016 will likely be its biggest step forward. This won't be the year that virtual reality goes mainstream, but you're sure to hear more about the technology than ever before with big product launches from Oculus/Facebook, HTC/Valve, Sony, and Microsoft (although its HoloLens is technically augmented reality).
Here are 10 trends to keep an eye on as 2016 unfolds.
1. 2016 will be a learning year
First and foremost, 2016 will be an important year for broader audiences learning what virtual reality is in the first place. Some may not have ever heard of it. Some, may have only experienced it briefly, or in the form of Google Cardboard.
"There's going to be a moment when we collectively realize the value of virtual reality, and that's something different than we've had before," said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. It'll be a middle ground between what people have wanted these devices to do and what they can do, and the value of VR — whether good or bad, useful or not— will hopefully be apparent.
To this point, people have only imagined the value of VR in the consumer market. Whether VR will find a killer app or a most-popular use case remains to be seen, but there will be a developing sense of what people prefer to do with VR devices.
2. Mobile-driven VR will introduce many more to VR
2015 saw the beginning of the distribution of low-end virtual reality to the masses. The New York Times, Outside Magazine, and others delivered free Google Cardboard headsets to subscribers—who simply insert their smartphones to turn Cardboard into a head-mounted display. The New York Times alone mailed out 1.2 million Cardboard units. This will likely continue into 2016 in various forms, like the recent Lucasfilm/Verizon/Google partnership in which Star War-themed Cardboard headsets were available for free at Verizon stores.
Getting free VR—even if many would argue that 360 video is not, in fact, virtual reality—into lots of hands could be a positive thing. But, there's always a "but," Blau said.
"I'm also concerned too, that there's a possibility that because it is so low end, that people may not put value on it," he said. That's not an uncommon problem in the consumer market. Free too often equates to things people don't value. Though, having backing from organizations like the Times helps combat that in some sense—it's just that the Times alone can't influence how consumers peg the relationship between cost and value.
Still, NextVR's VR evangelist Helen Situ said Google's done a good job of getting the minimum viable VR product out there in the form of Cardboard, and it will help give people an idea of what VR is to begin with.
"You have photos [of VR], YouTube videos of it, article after article, but at the end of the day, it's just something you have to experience to spark your imagination into thinking about how this could change different industries like medicine, entertainment, sports, movies, even events," Situ said.
Sitting above Cardboard is the Samsung Gear VR. The display is still a Samsung phone or phablet, but it does include sensors in the headset. As one of the first consumer HMDs to hit the market, it comes in at the relatively friendly price point of $99.
Situ said she's particularly optimistic in the Gear's ability to attract interest from those more tuned into VR's uses in casual gaming and entertainment.
3. Get ready for bigger-budget content
Don't expect VR movies just yet. Though, ABI Research's Eric Abbruzzese said more money will get thrown at VR content.
Already major motion pictures like Insurgent, Jurassic World, The Martian, and Star Wars have created VR experiences to supplement their marketing efforts.
DigiCapital estimates that the VR market will be about $30 billion by 2020.
"We might not see a big budget game specifically targeting VR, but we'll definitely see support for it. Then late 2016, early 2017, I think we'll start seeing a lot of targeted VR games... We're just now starting to see what the hardware can do to support that content," he said.
4. There will be more hype
Abbruzzese talked about the role of the media in the perception of VR's success.
"If the media embraces it as positively as I'm imagining, I think people are going to think it's a lot bigger than it is," he said.
Still, the tethered devices will be very expensive. He equated it to OLED TVs right now— the reviews are great, but only a limited number of people have them because of the price.
But, that won't stop lots of companies and organizations feeling as though they have to jump on the bandwagon.
5. There will also be backlash
Backlash is just the way of the world. Abbruzzese said one source might be recent converts— "people who weren't familiar with VR a month ago and now they are, and they're expecting too much of it, and they say, 'Wait, what do you mean I can't plug the Oculus Rift into my iPhone and play Candy Crush?'"
And if not a full-on backlash, then at least something of a calming.
"We had this build up to this great introduction to these new products, and then after a while, it'll die off a little bit, and people will get bored with it, and we're back to some stasis which is somewhere in between where we were before and where we'll be in 2016," said Tom Furness, who is considered to be the grandfather of virtual reality. He's currently the director of the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington.
6. Interactivity will be increasingly important
Right now, 360 video largely gets billed as virtual reality. Eventually, though, audiences will learn to not only distinguish, but expect not to be passive observers of the medium as they are in television or movies. They'll want to move around (literally, too, as seated experiences could fall in popularity) and interact with their surroundings. Karl Krantz, founder of the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference, used the example of Oculus' VR animation Henry. The titular Henry is a little hedgehog.
"He's sitting there, and he's complaining about having no friends and being all alone, and I'm like, hey, I'm right here in the room with you! And he's completely ignoring me... I'm in the room and I feel like I'm in the room," Krantz said. That means at some point, Henry will have to stop ignoring him.
Also relating to interactivity is the issue of controllers. When Oculus ships, it will ship with the Xbox One controller. The HTC Vive, on the other hand, will have hand controllers natively built for VR.
"Once you get hands in VR, you never want to go back," he said.
7. Diversity will improve, but will continue to be an issue
The video game industry has a rocky relationship with diversity. Gamergate took the cake for scuzziness on the Internet. Because, by nature, virtual reality has an overlap with the video game industry, it will have to contend with some of the same problems, including how to figure how to attract more women and minorities, not only as consumers but content creators.
There is a conversation happening. Industry publications like VRScout and Upload VR have addressed the gender gap. At the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference this year, an audience member asked a panel including Oculus founder Palmer Luckey about efforts to get more minorities interested in creating VR, if only for the ability to produce better content, appealing to a broader swath of people. Luckey reiterated that most talent will come from the gaming industry. Yes, they're mostly white males, and that's just the way it is, he said.
Krantz has been watching the imbalance somewhat closely at SVVR meetings, and watching who joins the mailing list. He sees more women joining, though not exactly in droves.
"[The gender imbalance] was apparent so fast as the VR community exploded into being. I always see VR as a chance where we can start over from scratch in a whole new field, and hopefully improve from what we've learned in the past," he said.
8. Units will sell out, BUT...
When the Gear VR came out in November, the big story was that it sold out, even from Amazon. That's a great headline to have after a product launch, but what's unknown still, is how many units Samsung produced.
"It's going to look like they can't make them fast enough," Krantz said. The operative word there is look.
9. Adoption will still be dominated by early adopters
Blau said not to expect a mass market response just yet. Rather, expect purchases from those interested and willing to spend their money on a technology that's not necessarily a sure thing. They may have already tried VR, they may even have devices. They're curious and they don't mind experimenting. That extends to businesses, too, whether it's big brands or not. Regardless, it'll be companies with divisions—such as PR, marketing, and product development—that don't mind being early adopters.
"Part of the issue is it's a bit of a chicken and egg situation because brands want to get in front of lots of users and they'll have a more efficient spend once they have access to users, but in the beginning year, we're talking small numbers relative to the mass market," Blau said.
10. Don't expect anything from Apple or Nintendo
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.