Sony ramps up VR efforts as demand for virtual events surges

Sony is intensifying efforts to perfect its virtual reality headset as the Japanese company bets that the demand for online-only concerts, crowd-free sports events and escapist games will finally push the technology into the home entertainment mainstream.

The effort, outlined by Sony’s chief executive Kenichiro Yoshida in an interview with the Financial Times, comes six months ahead of the planned launch of its PlayStation 5 games console and what analysts believe will be a period of blistering competition with Microsoft’s new Series X machine.

Mr Yoshida revealed his hopes for Sony’s VR technology when asked how the company, which owns some of the largest movie, music and games companies in the world, will reshape entertainment delivery amid prolonged lockdowns and, eventually, a post-Covid-19 world.

“The challenge is how we can conduct live [concerts] remotely that are both immersive and real time,” Mr Yoshida said on Wednesday. “We are experimenting with streaming of concerts using VR but the key is how we can offer the experience more smoothly.”

His remarks follow rapper Travis Scott’s concert held in late April inside the hugely popular online game Fortnite, which drew a record 12.3m live viewers and led to a fourfold increase in the streaming of the artist’s latest music video.

Shortly after the event was held, Mr Yoshida sent out a message to his employees, pointing out that this could be the group’s next opportunity. 

Mr Yoshida forecast that live concerts with packed crowds would remain off limits for an extended period following the lifting of global lockdowns, and the recovery could be slower than its film business.

Sony has sold more than 5m units of its PlayStation VR since it was launched in 2016. Rival VR hardware maker Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, this week disclosed that users had spent more than $100m on content for its standalone headset Quest in its first year.

But the initial hype for the industry has died down quickly without killer content as well as lingering tech issues such as latency and nausea induced by the visual experience. Other gripes by gamers include the fact the current VR headset is attached to the PS4 console by a wire, and that the machine can only support one player at a time. There has been heavy speculation among analysts and gamers that the PS5 will support two wireless headsets.

“The real breakthrough may come if they can work out a way to make VR more social so it is not just one person,” said David Gibson, a Tokyo-based gaming analyst at Astris Advisory. “Once you get the headset price down and the machine supports more than one, then VR can become a group thing, but we are not there yet.”

While Mr Yoshida did not discuss any VR plans for PS5, he acknowledged that PlayStation VR was still in an early phase: “There is much room for progress for VR. We need to continue improving our technology.” 

Analysts say the demand for VR entertainment content such as concerts and sports post-coronavirus will speed up the shift beyond hardcore gamers. “There may still be issues with hardware but corona will accelerate various approaches to VR and that will give it a strong boost,” said Hirokazu Hamamura, gaming expert and senior adviser to the board at publisher Kadokawa. 

Pelham Smithers, an independent analyst, said VR would be “a necessary but not sufficient” condition for the success of its new console.

“Sony will be looking for every advantage over Microsoft later this year, and it makes sense to push an area like VR where they have a significant advantage over the competition,” he said.

Still, the biggest factor for the sales of PS5, say analysts, will be its price, which Sony has yet to unveil. “I can’t comment on pricing but it’s of course going to be critical,” said Mr Yoshida.

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