Illustration by Sam Woolley

In truth, 2016 was not “The Year of VR.” It was the year of the start of VR. Multiple major tech companies released impressive VR systems that were clearly the first of their kind; flawed and fascinating, destined to be improved upon and replaced. The age of immersive technology is upon us, but its future remains uncertain.

This is part of our 2016 “State of” series, a look at how the major consoles, VR platforms, and PC are doing this year.

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The virtual reality pot has been simmering for several years. Our interest grew based on a steady boil of impressive tech demos from companies like Oculus, Valve and Sony, developer kits out in the wild, and a general consensus that in 2016, commercial virtual reality was going to become an actual reality.

And that’s just what happened. Here at the year’s end, we have complete VR rigs from Oculus, HTC, and Sony. The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own standout games. Stack them all together in a single room (careful not to break anything!) and it’s hard to deny that this year, VR became a reality.

A Bunch Of Virtual Options

Oculus, the Facebook-owned company that (literally) kickstarted interest in VR back in 2012, was first out of the gate with their finished $600 Rift commercial headset in March. The Rift felt incomplete until it was joined in early December by the Touch controllers, which turned out to be worth the wait. The $800 Valve-backed HTC Vive launched in April along with the open SteamVR platform, and the Vive’s handheld motion controls and clever tracking solution allowed players to walk around in impressive “room-scale” VR for the first time. Then in September, Sony launched their $500 PlayStation VR system, which can’t quite keep up with the competition on a technical level but has them beat in terms of price, particularly when you factor in the comparative cheapness of a PS4 ($300 or so) versus a VR-ready gaming PC ($800-1000 and up).

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The high price of headset-based VR in 2016 limited the audience to only the most enthusiastic early adopters. Many more people have been introduced to VR through passive phone-based mobile headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s low-tech Daydream and lower-tech Cardboard. These experiences are less advanced than what an expensive gaming PC can muster, but they do convey the gist of VR via devices many people already own.

Virtual reality’s close cousin augmented reality (AR) showed up in a bigger way than expected this year, owing mostly to the apocalyptically popular Pokémon Go. In a matter of a few days, people who had never played a video game had effortlessly internalized the concept of a game world superimposed over the real world as they cruised the streets in search of a wild Bulbasaur.

With VR games, Quantity Over Quality 

At first, there weren’t enough VR games. Then, there were too many. These days there’s a healthy number of good games, but it’s become harder than ever to sort the wheat from the chaff. Too many current VR games are really just demos or unfinished early-access prototypes, and the current glut of VR shovelware, particularly on Steam, can be paralyzing.

Push the chaff aside, and you’ll find that 2016 did get its share of standout virtual reality games.

Super Hot VR (Rift) let players live out a collection of harrowing slow-mo action sequences, dodging bullets and snatching throwing stars out of the air.

House of the Dying Sun (Vive, Rift) put us in the cockpit of an imperial starfighter, and worked brilliantly in VR while doubling as a damn fine space combat game on a regular screen. Its outer-space sibling Elite Dangerous (Vive, Rift) remained one of the most involved VR games available, and the odd mundanity of some of that game’s space travel was soothing compared with most VR games’ tendency to dazzle the player with jarring gimmicks.

Minecraft (Vive, Rift, GearVR) proved to be a legit VR experience, as its slow-paced building and exploration meshed perfectly with VR’s slower, more intimate way of viewing a game world. Edge of Nowhere (Rift) gave players control over a mostly normal third-person action game, but used VR to impart a terrifying sense of scale as towering beasts lumbered overhead.

Job Simulator and Fantastic Contraption (both on Rift and Vive) let players get goofy and creative within a 3D space, while two-gun shooters like Space Pirate Trainer, Raw Data and Arizona Sunshine (all on Rift and Vive) had us shooting floating robots, walking robots and zombies, respectively.

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Over the year, a few game design formulas have emerged as the safest bets for VR: Seated cockpit games, controller games that make you a floating camera, games where you stand still and shoot waves of enemies. The PSVR found success with more arcade-like games like Thumper, Super Hypercube and Rez Infinite that put you at a fixed point in an abstracted space. Each of those popular approaches aims to deliver an enjoyable game that cuts down on the ever-present specter of VR sickness. We found that, in general, standing games that let us freely move around in VR carried a far lower risk of nausea than games that make us stay still while the world moved around us.

Some games interestingly experimented within those accepted templates, like the robot-possession shooter Damaged Core (Rift), the competitive magic-slinging game The Unspoken (Rift), and the early access strategy defense game Cosmic Trip (Vive, Rift). Other games shone by moving outside those paradigms entirely, like the standout rock climbing game The Climb (Rift), the whirlwind sports tour VR Sports Challenge (Rift), and the surprisingly engrossing pool simulation in SportsBar VR (Vive, Rift).

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Each of those games was interesting because it made you physically do a thing—climbing, shooting, throwing—that in a screen-based game would have been relegated to a button press. As VR games get more and more ambitious, it will be interesting to see what other interactions developers are able to recreate.

More Than Just Games

The most compelling pieces of VR software this year weren’t games at all. The elegant 3D painting app Tilt Brush is a marvel, and using it to conjure glowing 3D artwork into the space in front of you feels like a techno-magic-trick. Desktop apps like Bigscreen and Virtual Desktop let us view our PC monitors as towering, drive-in-sized screens in VR, the better to work, play screen-based games, or watch movies in your own private IMAX theater. Nifty non-interactive VR short films like Henry and Alumette pointed toward a future where VR movies make IMAX 3D look quaint.

Arguably most impressive is Google Earth VR, a slick application that uses Google’s years of accumulated 3D map data to let you explore the entire world in virtual reality. There is nothing else quite like like the luminous feeling of standing in outer space and staring down at our tiny, vulnerable planet as the sun crests the horizon. You seamlessly swoop straight down until you’re standing over a miniature model of your childhood home. You retrace the route you drove each day to high school. Get down on your hands and knees, and you can read the sign on a nearby theater you’d forgotten. Chart the trails in the state park where your family would walk the dog on weekends. Return to the street where you had your first kiss. It’s enough to make a believer out of even the most ardent VR skeptic.

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Throughout the year it became clearer that while gamers are among the first supporters of VR technology, its applications are far wider than video games. Virtual tourism, attending sports games or even the Olympics in VR, and of course virtually banging your favorite porn star all have a much broader appeal than shooting zombies or flying a spaceship. VR may be all about video games now, but expect to see things go much wider in the years to come.

Fear and Loathing in the VR Community 

A chief point of conflict about VR this year arose from the different strategies Valve and the Facebook-owned Oculus took to their VR storefronts. The Oculus Rift is accompanied by its own standalone store, which Oculus curates to make sure that all of the games in it are of a relatively high quality and run seamlessly with their custom VR user interface. SteamVR is much more open ended—just like Steam itself—which lets users customize their interface and potentially play a wider variety of games.

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Between those two stores rests the biggest sticking point for VR enthusiasts: SteamVR works fine with both the Rift and the Vive, but the Oculus store will only natively work with the Oculus Rift. In other words, you can use a Rift with VR games that are sold on Steam. You can’t (easily) use a Vive with games that are sold on the Oculus store.

This has fueled much contention, arguing, and confusion among VR enthusiasts, to the point that a minor console war has broken out between fans of the Vive and the Rift. (PlayStation VR fans have mostly kept out of it, for better or for worse.) Other journalists have tried to sort through the vagaries of the two tech megacorps’ motivations, but even the most effortful attempts start to spiral in on themselves after about a thousand words.

Suffice it to say: Oculus wants to launch a new PC storefront and Valve already has the dominant PC storefront, so the two companies have taken different approaches. Oculus is spending more money helping developers make VR games, and in so doing has secured more games for their store. After temporarily blocking the ReVive app, which acted as a wrapper to let Vive owners play Rift games, Oculus relented and allowed the software to work. Nowadays, with a little bit of elbow grease, Vive owners can play most Rift “exclusives” like Superhot VR. It’s a fluid state of affairs and none of the companies involved are being completely transparent about their reasoning or future plans.

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And then there’s Sony. They’re somewhat off on their own with weaker hardware running their virtual reality experiences, though they do have a few games that also have PC versions. Already, we can see a gulf between the room-scale VR that Valve and Oculus now both offer and the stationary VR that Sony is restricted to. Sony has a theoretical advantage in having more famous gaming brands of its own that it can use to make catchy VR games, but its internal studios have not released any marvels yet.

With PSVR, Sony resurrected at least two abandoned technologies (the Move and the Camera) for another go-round.

Sony also has a history of introducing ambitious new gadgets like the PlayStation Camera and the PlayStation Move only to abandon them, and has yet to prove it’s going to give PlayStation VR the support it needs. Our favorite PSVR games so far haven’t been made by Sony. They’ve been made by indie devs and AAA studios, both of whom are likely going to want to put their games on as many VR headsets as possible. Witness Ubisoft already announcing that its impressive Eagle Flight game will play across PSVR, Rift and Vive.

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HTC, Sony and Oculus recently partnered up with a few other companies to form the Global Virtual Reality Association. We’re hopeful this means they’ll begin to hash out some standards for the technology going forward, and that in a few years everything will be much smoother. VR is still a fledgling industry and for the moment appears to be subsiding more on investment money than on consumer sales. Bubbles like that are always worrying, and it’s in everyone’s best interest for the equation to invert so that VR developers can start making money.

The Future of VR

Plenty of knowledgable people still see VR as a fad, destined to go the way of the laserdisc and the 3D TV. It is certainly possible that those people are right. It could be that once the initial investments dry up, there simply won’t be enough consumer interest to perpetuate a VR cottage industry, let alone a full-blown move to the mainstream. After spending the better part of a year using all three of the major VR headsets, I’m more optimistic.

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It’s not about which VR system has the best controllers, or the clearest screen, or the best operating system. It’s not even about which one has the best games. It’s about an implacable technological constant: the erosion of the wall between us and the digital world. Taken one step further, it’s about our own inevitable transition into a shared digital realm.

It’s only a matter of time.

Every year we humans further surround ourselves with digital technology. Our phones and watches and glasses and other devices put screens at closer and closer reach. We speak aloud to Alexa, and Siri, and Cortana, and the other digital stewards that help us manage our lives. All while the layer between our reality and the network pulsing beneath it gets thinner.

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With VR, we superimpose ourselves onto those digital worlds in a new way, peering and prodding and poking with an intuitiveness that even the most advanced screen-based technology could not hope to match. With AR, we superimpose digital worlds onto our own, using cameras and screens and lenses to help reveal the digital dimensions that exist parallel to our own. Both approaches are drawing different vectors toward the same endpoint: the ability to freely explore the limitless virtual world.

VR and AR will quickly expand their appeal beyond the world of video games. One needs only see the tears running down the face of a loved one after trying Tilt Brush for the first time (true story) or watch a gobsmacked friend visit the Grand Canyon in Google Earth VR to understand just how effortlessly this technology can transcend our gaming niche. And one needs only look at the absurd mainstream success of Pokémon Go to understand the universal appeal of uncovering a new digital world hidden atop our own.

It makes sense that gamers would be the first to embrace VR, even if the technology will ultimately expand beyond us. To love video games is to be an explorer, a virtual tourist visiting an endless series of fantastical destinations. Who among us wouldn’t want to go there—to really go there—in a way we used to assume would always be the province of science fiction?

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When you don your headset for the first time and enter SteamVR, you are greeted by a vast, digital horizon dominated by three words: “This is real.” It’s a playfully direct expression of the dream of virtual reality. At long last, we can enter the digital world in a manner previously consigned to theme park attractions and speculative fiction. In 2016, VR became real. Now, it needs to become good enough to go mainstream.