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Could ‘Ready Player One’ Awaken the Sleepy VR Market?

Todd Spangler

Steven Spielberg’s virtual-reality fantasy “Ready Player One” may help drive sales of VR headsets — which have dramatically fallen short of previous bullish forecasts — but not everyone thinks the movie will really be a tipping point.

Ready Player One,” set to hit theaters March 29, takes place in a dystopian future where VR gamers are battling for control of the virtual world. It’s on pace to rake in between $45 million and $55 million over the four-day opening weekend, according to industry tracking services.

Given how “Ready Player One” extensively showcases VR gameplay, it could serve as a catalyst for the virtual-reality market, according to Jefferies equity analyst Mark Lipacis. In other words, the movie has the potential to be a mainstream cultural moment that fuels interest in VR the way the overnight hit of augmented-reality game “Pokémon Go” vaulted AR forward.

“We believe that the movie will drive sales of VR headsets that require high-performance GPUs [graphics processing units]” from chip-makers Nvidia and AMD, he wrote in a research note published Monday. “‘Ready Player One’ has the potential to appeal to an electronics-game savvy audience that is motivated to have a more immersive experience.”

However, the Spielberg-directed movie can’t change the bigger factors that have so far kept VR a relatively small niche in the entertainment biz and hampered adoption, other observers say. Those include the high cost of hardware and the “exclusive immersion” of VR (meaning users can’t multitask while they wearing a headset), said Tim Merel, managing director of Digi-Capital, an advisory firm specializing in VR and augmented-reality technologies.

“While ‘Ready Player One’ is great in terms of raising VR’s profile to drive consumer trial of VR systems in the short-term, it is not clear yet what impact this will have on VR’s long-term growth prospects,” Merel said.

Initial reviews of “Ready Player One” have been mixed. Rotten Tomatoes registers a critic’s score of 75% so far. On the other hand, the movie has a 98% “want to see” user score on the website, representing the percentage of users following “Ready Player One” who added it to their want-to-see list.

The movie has plenty of VR scenes that showcase “vicarious fantasy combat” in ways that are “entrancingly cool,” Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review. “‘Ready Player One’ tells a breathless and relatively coherent story — essentially, the future of civilization is riding on the outcome of a video game — but the movie, first and foremost, is a coruscating explosion of pop-culture eye candy,” Gleiberman wrote. The movie premiered at SXSW on Sunday.

Regardless of how well “Ready Player One” fares at the box office, VR has been a huge disappointment relative to early projections. That’s led to price cuts from HTC and Facebook’s Oculus, and Sony’s PlayStation VR for their standalone virtual-reality gear. Last year, around 9.6 million consumers in the U.S. — just 2.9% of the population — used a VR headset at least monthly, according to eMarketer, which forecasts that percentage growing to just 5.2% by 2019.

Like other analysts, Merel is far more bullish on AR than VR. By 2022, Digi-Capital projects, AR could represent a $85 billion to $90 billion market with a base of 3.5 billion users. VR, by contrast, might have 50 million to 60 million installed base and represent annual revenue of $10 billion to $15 billion by 2022.

In the VR sector, over the long term entertainment — games, location-based entertainment and video — could represent two-thirds of all VR sector revenue, with hardware taking just over a quarter due to “limited unit sales and price competition,” according to Merel.

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