Believe it or not, Sony (NYSE: SNE) has sold more virtual reality (VR) headsets than the Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) Oculus Rift and HTC Vive combined in this generation of technology. Sony's PSVR, which connects to the PS4, isn't the best VR headset in terms of performance, but the company is trying to leverage its leading position into success in augmented reality (AR) before others enter the market.
It recently showed prototypes of AR headsets that it's using for the Ghostbusters themed experience at Ginza Sony Park in Japan. If this is a product that will eventually reach customers' hands, Sony could be making a play to turn AR headsets into its next wearable platform. If it succeeds, this could be a disruptive tech stock once again.
The Ghostbusters AR experience at Ginza Sony Park. Image source: Sony.
AR is the natural extension for VR
Thus far, VR and AR have been distant relatives but haven't had much crossover for consumers. I think that will change as VR headsets become more mobile and companies begin to design headsets that can offer both functions.
One reason the two technologies make sense together is the way they're developed. Both are taking virtual assets that are usually built into a game engine and then putting them into a tracked environment in the real world. With AR, virtual images are overlaid on the real world; in VR, the images replace the real world. So VR and AR aren't the same, but a lot of the building blocks of the technologies are similar.
The fact that Sony has a leading position in VR means that it could have some insights on building hardware for AR as well. At the very least, it's a step or two ahead of competitors in hardware.
Sony's unique position
It is also a technology company that consumers trust. And it's made VR accessible for a relatively low cost with the extension to PS4, so it's a way to test new technology.
Building systems like an AR Ghostbusters experience can also give Sony a way to prove the technology's value in a consumer setting before people take the product home for themselves. In VR and AR, there's no substitute for trying before you buy.
What to watch for
Sony isn't the only company eyeing AR as a disruptive technology. Facebook has teased that it's working on an AR headset/glasses, and there are rumors that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) will have an AR headset of some sort soon.
The big tech companies are all trying to find a way to make VR and AR a viable business, but no one has really cracked the nut yet. AR may have an advantage because it doesn't require putting on a headset that blocks out the real world, which may be a bridge too far for some users. And if Sony can make the technology compelling in a theme park attraction, it can translate that to real-world applications.
What I'm watching for is how users respond to its Ghostbusters content and how that compares with what companies like Apple and Facebook build. AR headsets appear to be on the horizon; it's just a matter of who builds them well and how they reach consumers that will determine success.
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