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VR Headsets Pass a Milestone as Amazon Sumerian Joins the Game

Virtual reality passed two important mileposts this week, and both augur well for a quickening of the somnolent sector.

First came news that, for the first time, more than 1 million VR headsets were sold in a single quarter, according to Canalys. Heading into the holiday season, that suggests some well-timed and building momentum for the most immersive and high quality VR experiences, even as 360 video and augmented-reality apps on mobile have grabbed most of the attention recently.

No surprise, the Goldilocks-priced PlayStation VR led the way, with an estimated 490,000 headsets sold. That was more than double the 210,000 Rift headsets sold in the quarter by No. 2 Oculus. HTC Vive came in third at 160,000 units sold. Together, the three makers comprised 86 percent of the market for the quarter.

Canalys analysts laid the bump in sales to Oculus’ (initially temporary) price cut, to $399, putting it on par with Sony’s device. Despite the price cut, the Rift still requires a much more powerful and expensive PC compared to the PlayStation consoles used by the PS VR.

Oculus also has announced plans to release a $199 headset next year, which should further boost interest among more price-conscious consumers.

Price cuts last week also helped Sony sell a record number of PlayStations on Black Friday, the head of the PlayStation Network, Mike Lempel told CNBC, though he didn’t release numbers. For the entire week of Black Friday, the company shaved $100 off even its bottom-end PS4, to $200, and cut the PS VR to $300. No surprise, there was some consumer appetite for the devices.

Canalys also predicts that more price cutting is coming. Big PC makers such as Acer, Lenovo, Dell, Asus and HP will join the VR business in 2018 with their own headsets at competitive prices. Package deals, initially chasing huge VR opportunities in the enterprise, should begin to achieve notable economies of scale and lower prices even for hobbyists and consumers.

Some of the biggest uptake for VR so far, however, has been in out-of-home location-based entertainment, with so-called VR experience zones. These arcade-style VR entertainment centers are also popping up in the United States, helped by investments from IMAX and others, but the largest growth remains in China, Japan and Korea.

Separately, Amazon’s AWS cloud service announced the launch of Sumerian, a set of browser-based tools designed to make it easier for developers to quickly create VR, AR and 3D applications without specialized programming or 3D graphics experience.

Sumerian will allow developers to create immersive projects for Apple’s iOS mobile devices, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, with support for Android’s ARCore “coming soon.”

The real value here for developers may be its platform-agnostic approach, which promises to simplify the hassles of creating immersive experiences for multiple platforms. Combined with Sumerian’s promise to be easily accessible even to people without specialized VR experience, the new tools could stimulate new kinds of projects from a broader range of creators.

Though it’s way to soon to know whether Sumerian will live up to its hype, cross-platform accessible tools that can bring in new creators to the sector are a Very Good Thing.

Given the outsized expectations that bathed VR in 2016, before the predictable lurch into 2017’s Trough of Disillusionment, it’s about time that the sector again began collecting some wins as it makes the equally predictable climb out of the trough and into widespread adoption over the next few years.