Consumer VR has yet to establish itself as a viable commercial product or mass-market artistic medium, and it’s still possible that it never will. But there’s no denying that 2016 was a huge turning point, both socially and technologically. VR didn’t exactly soar this year — but it didn’t crash and burn, either.
At the beginning of 2016, virtual reality was almost purely the province of developers, artists, and the lucky few who got to see their work. Concepts were usually more important than execution, and VR experiences didn’t have to be good, just novel. The only real options for most people to try it were the Samsung Gear VR, an interesting product with a lot of flaws, and the simple Google Cardboard.
The year didn’t get off to an auspicious start. The first high-end VR system launch, the Oculus Rift in March, was a bit of a mess. The headset had some great features but cost far more than people expected. It felt incomplete without motion controllers, and a component shortage made it almost impossible to find. The HTC Vive — which came soon after — felt more powerful, but it was barely a consumer device, and selling it as one laid bare how sparse experiences still were. At the same time, it proved that VR could stay entertaining for weeks or months instead of minutes.
Outside the big commercial headset launches, super-ambitious VR entertainment company The Void launched its first experience in Times Square, to mixed reviews. The Chinese VR market got bigger and more interesting, focusing on compact, self-contained designs and special features. The Sundance and Tribeca film festivals made VR a big part of their lineup, and The Verge co-hosted a pop-up exhibit with the Toronto International Film Festival.
Late fall saw a few highlights. Sony’s PlayStation VR showed how VR could fit with the typical console gaming experience, with uniquely trippy games like Thumper and Rez. Daydream, a mobile VR platform built into Android, put Google’s weight behind virtual reality. Then Oculus made up for its past stumbles by releasing the best VR controllers ever made, alongside clever games like Superhot and I Expect You To Die. These still don’t feel as full-featured as non-VR games, but they’re a far cry from anything we saw in 2015.
Inside virtual reality, we’ve started figuring out its weak points — the potential for harassment, problems with embodiment, and confusion about how to fit it into the existing worlds of gaming and film. Also, nobody can make money developing for it.
These could be signs that VR is still too flawed to succeed, or they could be the growing pains that let it flourish down the road. It’s frustrating to have yet another year of uncertainty ahead of us, but it’s also a good sign that VR has at least squeaked through one of its biggest transitions. — Adi Robertson
Verge 2016 Report Card: VR
- Lots of creative, genuinely good experiments
- Hardware that (eventually) lived up the hype
- Widespread interest in film and gaming
- Still inaccessible and expensive for most of the year
- Economic future is uncertain
- Interest hasn't translated into full-featured experiences
TV and set-top boxes
TV makers kept up the “4K!” cheerleading throughout 2016, and as we wrap up December, the years-long slog to Ultra HD still isn’t over — not even close. But we’re entering 2017 in a much better place. You can walk into a Best Buy or Walmart, or log onto Amazon and buy a nice 4K TV for under $700. Most of those will look pretty great when streaming Netflix or Amazon Video in 4K -- some even include HDR, which adds brighter and more vivid picture for a more theater-like experience.
So the price barrier to entering the world of UHD is pretty much gone. Will a $2,000 TV still look better than a bargain set? Most always, but it’s (probably) easier than ever to find something affordable that looks great to your own eyes.
The software experience on those TVs hasn’t radically changed since we last left CES. It’s a mix of Tizen (Samsung), Android TV (Sony, etc.), webOS (LG), a very minimal Chromecast UI (Vizio), and Roku TV. Most sets ship with the must-have popular streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube built in, giving you an instant source of 4K video. Not everything’s great, but you can mostly navigate menus on your TV without pulling your hair out. Progress!
Depending on your TV, a set-top box like an Apple TV or Roku might not be the automatic purchase it was a year ago. But if you still want one, they’ve made improvements this year too. Pretty much all the big ones except Apple’s now support 4K resolution. Most of them can also serve as a cable box replacement thanks to services like DirecTV Now, Sling TV, and PlayStation Vue.
But there are still annoying problems and potential frustrations lingering. You’ve got competing standards for HDR: HDR10 and Dolby Vision. (The former has seen wider support across TV brands.) And when it comes to 4K content, you’ve got to pay attention to the HDMI ports when buying a new set. On many TVs, only one or two of several HDMI inputs might support HDMI 2.0, which is critical for streaming Ultra HD.
The year ahead will likely be one of iteration. LG will keep leading the class in picture quality with its OLED TVs — though it’s rumored that Sony might be releasing some of its own. Samsung will put out some fantastic high-end sets, and yep, some will be curved. Vizio, a favorite of home theater nerds, is in the process of being acquired by LeEco, which may result in interesting changes. But yet again, 2017 is going to be all about 4K, 4K, 4K. — Chris Welch
Verge 2016 Report Card: TVs
- 4K is more affordable than ever
- HDR makes your living room closer to a movie theater
- Several set-top boxes now do 4K
- A winning HDR format between HDR10 and Dolby Vision
- All TV makers need to keep current with HDMI and HDCP standards
- OLED, the TVs with best picture quality, are still expensive
Remember Peach? It was the biggest new thing in social networks in January, but chances are you’ve probably forgotten it existed.
That seems to be the general consensus around 2016 in apps. Occasionally, there are standouts, but most become temporarily popular only to get overshadowed or bought out by the big companies — mainly Facebook and Google.
The biggest promise of the year was also the biggest disappointment: bots. Despite Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all committing to bots as the future of technology, 2016 was definitively not the year of the AI chatbot. Facebook added bots to its Messenger in the form of apps — yep, apps within apps — but rather than wave of new interactions within our smartphones, we got a bunch of text-based versions of things like weather and food ordering. Microsoft went big on bots as a platform, but none of those experiments have really broken through. And Allo, Google’s big bet to bring AI bots to messaging apps, landed with more of a whimper than a bang.
The other takeaway from apps this year is that everyone seems to be hastily looking across the aisle to see what they can take from others. Apple updated iMessage to have Snapchat’s self-destructing photos and LINE-style stickers. Snapchat’s Memories is basically cloud photo storage like that of Google Photos’ and GroupMe’s. Instagram flat out copied Snapchat’s stories down to its feature name. Finally, Facebook Messenger ripped off Snapchat’s live filters and vanishing messages. Instead of any real innovation, we just saw the same features in more places.
Meanwhile, beloved apps like Vine and Sunrise left our phones for good. Despite the backing of major companies like Microsoft and Twitter, it seems that having a small but dedicated community that use your app is no longer enough.
It’s also been a bad year to be an up and coming iOS game developer. There were some interesting new titles this year, but the F2P market has long since taken over the platform. Suffice to say, we haven’t seen something like Monument Valley take the mobile gaming space by storm. The biggest gaming apps of the year came in the form of Nintendo’s blockbuster franchises making their way to mobile platforms, but Pokemon Go has had little staying power since its summer success, and Super Mario Run faces an uncertain future while clinging to an app store pricing scheme that hasn’t succeeded since 2008.
That said, it isn’t all doom and gloom for the future of apps. We did have some fun new players this year: Prisma is a genuinely brilliant and fun photo editing app that feels like a throwback to apps of years past. And Google’s Motion Stills app took Apple’s Live Photos and elevated them to an entirely new level of brilliant entertainment by turning them into GIFs.
In the end, apps are still the way we interact with almost all of our technological devices, and probably will be for some time. People still buy apps, and despite the promise of bots to make individual applications unnecessary, that future is still ways to go. If that promise extends to next year — perhaps, with some new, more nimble competition to the entrenched players — 2017 could be quite exciting. At the very least, we have more ways than ever to get robots to order us pizza. — Chaim Gartenberg
Verge 2016 Report Card: Apps
- Some new, creative apps that remixed old smartphone features in new ways
- Email apps are back
- Bots need big improvements
- Messaging apps are unnecessarily complicated
- It’s tough for new, smaller developers to be found and make money