How well are virtual reality headsets selling? With most of the sector’s major players remaining coy on sales figures, we’re left to draw an incomplete picture from various bits of data. This month, at least, we have an intriguing new data point: a burst in PC-VR hardware use, two months in a row.
Valve’s gaming marketplace Steam includes an opt-in hardware survey feature, and the results are published as percentages of surveyed users on a monthly basis. You’ll find all kinds of data about Steam-connected computers every month, and this includes operating systems, video cards, VR systems, and more. In the latter case, that figure is counted out of all Steam users—as opposed to a less-helpful stat like “70 percent of VR fans prefer Product A, 30 percent Product B.”
We were intrigued (but not surprised) to see a jump in connected VR devices for the reported month of December 2019. That’s the holiday season, after all, and it’s reasonable to expect Santa’s deliveries of headsets to affect data.
What surprised us was the continued growth of that metric through the following month—and a statistically significant one, at that. The latest survey, taken during January 2020, says that 1.31 percent of all surveyed Steam users own a VR system, up from 1.09 percent the month prior. By pure percentage points, this is the largest one-month jump in pure percentage since Valve began tracking VR use in 2016—by a long shot. (For perspective, the same survey indicated that 0.9 percent of Steam computers run on Linux, while 3.0 percent use MacOS or OSX.)
At least a million
From there, extrapolating a figure for PC-VR headset ownership is tricky. The last firm count of total Steam users came from Valve in January 2019, when the company announced 90 million “monthly active users.” Before that, in August 2017, Valve had announced a MAU count of 67 million. We can safely assume the number has grown to some degree in the past 13 months. (Valve representatives did not immediately respond to Ars’ questions about Steam’s current MAU counts.)
Additionally, the survey only counts VR system ownership if a headset is connected to a Steam user’s computer when the survey is taken—as opposed to tracking VR software use through the month. Thus, any tidy VR users who unhook and stow their headsets when not in use wouldn’t be counted. That’s a likely use case for anybody taking advantage of the recent Oculus Link feature, exclusive to the otherwise portable Oculus Quest system.
Let’s not forget, there is likely a significant number of Oculus system owners who never connect to Steam, thanks to its Oculus Home landing zone (which loads an all-in-one storefront whenever users put a Rift, Rift S, or Quest headset over their eyes).
Between those factors, basing any guess on the painfully conservative MAU count of 90 million gets us to 1.17 million PC-VR users connecting to Steam. Drawing an exponential trend line of Steam’s MAU between August 2017 and January 2019 would get us closer to a count of 1.6 million active VR hardware owners on Steam, and that doesn’t include any estimate of Steam-ignorant Oculus users.
However you slice it, the juiciest detail can’t be argued: a 20.2% jump within a major PC-VR ecosystem in 30 days. How much is that? Well, in the prior 13 months, from December 2018 to January 2020, the whole sector went up 0.29 percentage points, from 0.8 percent of all users to 1.09 percent. (In other words, a 36.25% jump over that span of time.)
The missing Link?
During that span of time, Valve, Oculus, and HTC each launched at least one brand-new consumer-grade system in 2019, while prices began to bottom out for solid existing Windows Mixed Reality options, particularly the Ars-approved Samsung Odyssey+. Ars’ pick for the best VR system of 2019, the Oculus Quest, launched in April as a “standalone-only” VR system—meaning, it couldn’t connect to PCs and run their beefier VR experiences. But that changed by November with the “Oculus Link” party trick.
Curiously, Steam’s January 2020 survey doesn’t break out Oculus Quest as a SteamVR headset option. This might be due to Oculus Link functioning effectively like an Oculus Rift S when it interfaces with the SteamVR software suite; Valve can only report what a connected headset reports, and Quest hardware fakes like a Rift S as far as its connection to SteamVR is concerned.
Coincidentally, the latest Steam hardware survey shows a dramatic jump in Oculus Rift S ownership, up 33 percent compared to its prior month. No other headset-install base grew that dramatically. But we’re left guessing as to how much of that jump came due to Rift S hardware and/or Quest hardware; both had their fair share of holiday sellouts in the past few months, and we’re still waiting to hear from Oculus and its parent company, Facebook, about those platforms’ sales.
Valve’s own Index hardware suite, in particular, didn’t see a massive jump in this survey. How much that depends on Valve’s own hardware shortages is unclear. The last data point on Index system sales came from an outside source guessing a grand total of 107,000 systems sold by the end of 2019.
Had the stats pointed specifically to Windows Mixed Reality systems, we might have concluded that some warehouse-clearing sales were the culprit. Instead, this surge in relative ownership may boil down to positive reviews for hardware and software across the board. 2019 ended with the launch of three high-profile, single-player VR games: Boneworks, Asgard’s Wrath, and Stormlands. (Boneworks launched on multiple PC-VR platforms, while the other two games are Oculus storefront exclusives, unless you engage in “Revive” trickery.) Or maybe the announcement of a VR-exclusive installment in the Half-Life series, coming next month to all PC-VR platforms, is enough to send a statistically significant ripple through the VR sector.
If you’re looking for reasons to be pessimistic about PC-VR popularity, on the other hand, Valve has another data gold mine for you: its daily measure of software statistics. As of press time, only one VR app, VRChat, charts in the “top 100” list of games and apps with the most concurrent players. For a much firmer count of SteamVR’s playerbase, we imagine all eyes will be on this stats page once Half-Life: Alyx launches next month (assuming “Valve Time” doesn’t strike).
PlayStation VR remains an outlier of these stats, though Sony has regularly announced sales figures for that isolated platform, which requires a PlayStation 4 console to work. During its CES 2020 keynote, Sony announced lifetime PSVR hardware sales figures of 5 million, up from 4.2 million in March 2019.