Turns out China loves VR. Wires and powerful hardware, less so.

Research shows desire for standalone headsets in the People's Republic

New research shows that China leads the world in buying standalone virtual reality (VR) headsets, with people who live there shunning traditional tethered devices for the likes of the HTC Vive Focus.

After a period of impressive growth, worldwide shipments of tethered VR headsets (such as the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR or HTC Vive) have flatlined, registering a global uptick of only 2 per cent when comparing Q1 2017 to Q1 2018, according to the report from Canalys.

Sony, of course, remains the biggest beast, with its PlayStation 4-based headset accounting for 1.7 million VR device purchased in 2017, according to industry watchers Trendforce. Aggressive pricing by Facebook-backed Oculus pulled it ahead of HTC, a trend expected to continue.

However, Canalys said some markets, such as Japan and the US, have seen shipments decline in 2018.

In terms of who is actually using the things (Sony's walled garden excepted), figures from online game-flinger Steam suggest the marketplace has stabilised over the last 12 months. Its hardware report shows the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now hover at around 46 and 45 per cent respectively. The Oculus, unsurprisingly, saw a jump in usage at the time of its price cut.

As for what will power continued growth in the VR arena, Canalys point to standalone headsets, which do not require a powerful PC or a PS4, such as the Oculus Go, which accounted for 115,000 of the 650,000 VR headsets shipped in the first quarter of 2018.

The standalone VR numbers represent a 234 per cent increase, quarter on quarter.

China, which has mostly skipped the tethered generation of VR with less than 20 per cent of shipments, snaffled 82 per cent of the standalone models with 94,000 headsets finding a home in the People's Republic. A lower price tag along with a wider range of choices accounts for the customer enthusiasm.

In terms of winners in the untethered generation, HTC is out in front. Canalys reports that the Vive Focus (yet to reach Western shores) is proving a hit and took 33.1 per cent of the China standalone VR market. New kid on the Chinese block Pico took 28.5 per cent and fellow Chinese manufacturer DPVR walked away with 13.3 per cent. More basic VR solutions, such as Google's Cardboard or Daydream, were not taken into account.

Jason Low, senior analyst at Canalys, reckons the odds look good for HTC with the six degrees of freedom (6-DoF) afforded by the Focus allowing for use cases outside of the usual games, and collaborations with McLaren and Major League Baseball boding well.

The release of the VR-heavy movie Ready Player One in Chinese cinemas in March will not have hurt enthusiasm either, although Low cautions: "HTC must now deliver content that matches the experience shown in the movie to get people to buy before their interest wanes."

While shipments of tethered VR headsets are likely to remain flat, the research points to continued rapid growth in the standalone segment driven by new devices such as the $199 Oculus Go and the global launch of HTC's Vive Focus. Canalys reckons that shipments in the US will catch up once the standalone headsets are available in meaningful quantities.

While the lower price and convenience will make it easier for consumers to adopt the technology, Low warns: "The next challenge is to focus on providing wider use cases to stimulate consumer demand."

Otherwise the sudden VR uptick generated by freedom from cables may be short-lived as the things are ruefully put into users' techno-junk drawers after a few frantic plays of Beat Saber. ®

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