CES Trends: Virtual Reality Between Crystal Balls, Data Gloves and Rabbit Holes

Janko Roettgers / Variety

Virtual reality was once again close to everywhere at CES in Las Vegas this week, with countless booths displaying headsets and accessories. A number of studios and creators also used the event to either launch or preview new experiences. But the biggest advancements may not be available to consumers for another year or two.

You don’t need a crystal ball to know that the tech industry is excited about VR — but just in case, Global Imagination made one anyway. The U.K.-based company had brought its “VR Sphere” to CES, which displays 360 degree videos on an oversized glass globe.

Someone actually made a VR crystal ball.Janko Roettgers / Variety

It was just one of the countless products popping up in the VR space, with many companies looking to find ways to add to the experience that headsets from major manufacturers are offering. Special VR chairs optimized for 360-degree swiveling, a wireless data glove, an input device that can be controlled with your feet and extension packs that make it possible to use headsets like the HTC Vive wireless were also on display.

A number of companies also displayed their own headsets, and others showed off PlayStation VR-like tracking and controllers for mobile VR — but much of this had been on display at last year’s show as well, or at CES Asia 2016 in Shanghai.

More interesting were the things you can’t quite buy yet — at least not as a regular consumer. uSens showed off its hand tracking module, which it is selling to developers for $99, with the goal of getting enough support for its platform to have headset manufacturers adopt it for their next-generation projects.

SoftKinetic, a subsidiary of Sony, demonstrated similar technology working with a customized Oculus Rift headset. The premise of both is intriguing; being able to use your hands instead of controllers in VR would definitely be a huge step, and the tech already seems pretty impressive. However, a SoftKinetic employee cautioned that it may be another two years before we see anything like it integrated into the VR headsets from major manufacturers.

Content producers aren’t waiting around for next-generation tech, and this year’s CES had many more previewing or unveiling their experiences to a tech industry audience. Felix & Paul unveiled their latest Cirque du Soleil experience, the Fox Innovation Lab gave us a glimpse at “Planet of the Apes VR” and Baobab Studios previewed “Asteroids!,” which is set to officially debut at Tribeca in April, just to name a few.

But the real winner in VR at CES was clearly HTC. The company not only unveiled its tracker, which makes it possible to turn toy guns, baseball bats and even fire hoses into trackable VR controllers. HTC also committed to building a standalone wireless VR headset, announced a VR subscription service and unveiled a content marketplace for VR arcade operators.

HTC’s efforts to monetize VR content could help smaller producers to see some return for their work. Right now, VR app stores favor popular apps, which tend to be video games, while burying some of the non-gaming and cinematic content, admitted Viveport President Rickard Steiber in a conversation with Variety.

Offering a subscription service can help with these kinds of discovery problems, and entice consumers to give lesser-known fare a try, he argued. “If you are app number 500 on that list, you are going to be very eager to be in the subscription plan,” he observed. Steiber also said that subscriptions could enable more episodic content, and suggested that HTC could over time launch separate subscription packages for different types of content.

Oculus was absent from this year’s CES, and so were the big names in augmented reality (AR), namely Magic Leap and Microsoft — but that didn’t prevent others from pushing AR. HoloLens competitor ODG caught much attention at the show with the introduction of its R-8 and R-9 AR glasses. The company wants to start selling its R-8 glasses for less than $1,000 this year, while the R-9 device is being priced at $1,800.

Augmented reality at a trade show means that attendees stare at empty shelves.Janko Roettgers / Variety

It’s still unclear whether consumers will really embrace these devices, but some in Hollywood are clearly hedging their bets. The Fox Innovation Lab also demonstrated a first exploration of AR that made use of ODG’s glasses during an event at the show, letting users explore short video snippets based on the upcoming “Alien: Covenant” movie in an augmented reality setting.

Finally, there were signs that some augmented reality experiences won’t require any glasses or headsets at all. Sony showed off a neat concept that allowed CES attendants to open a traditional picture book, only to see the characters become alive on the page and leave the book to continue their adventure on a table surface, all thanks to a clever combination of cameras and projectors.

The obvious book of choice for this prototype? “Alice in Wonderland,” a classic of augmented and virtual realities for over 150 years.