As consumer-grade virtual reality enters its fourth calendar year in 2019, it seems like a good time to check in once again on how the technology is catching on with gamers. On the plus side, Steam's monthly hardware surveys suggest the proportion of PC players with a VR headset plugged in roughly doubled in 2018. On the downside, that proportion is still rather anemic, representing less than one percent of the total Steam user base.
UploadVR, which has been tracking the numbers all year, notes that total VR ownership among Steam users started at about 0.4 percent in January of 2018 and rose to about 0.8 percent in December's survey. For context, the proportion of Steam users running a Linux-based system also sits at about 0.8 percent, and Valve admitted in April that its Linux-based SteamOS machines "aren't exactly flying off shelves."
But while Linux usage among Steam players has been relatively flat, VR headset ownership showed a marked increase throughout 2018. Valve said back in July that "active VR users" on the platform were up 160 percent from a year before. As any fan of Moore's Law can tell you, that kind of growth rate can turn small numbers into big numbers relatively quickly (provided you can keep growing at the same pace, of course).
Behind the numbers
The Steam survey data is a bit noisy, and it relies on opt-in participation from a randomized group of surveyed users who have to have the headset plugged in at survey time. Still, the bulk of 2018's VR increase among Steam users seems to have taken place between March and May. That lines up roughly with a $100 price drop for the HTC Vive (to $499) in March, though Oculus Rift sales rose notably around the same time without a price drop.
Breaking down the percentages a bit, the survey suggests that about 720,000 of Steam's 90 million monthly active users (as of October) have some form of VR headset plugged in to their rig. That's a pretty small user base, but it's up significantly from an estimated 200,000 Steam-based VR owners near the beginning of the year, thanks in part to the continuing growth of Steam's overall user base.
Last week, Valve revealed that rhythm-action game Beat Saber was among the top-grossing VR titles on Steam for 2018. That game sold 100,000 copies in "less than a month" at launch, suggesting the kind of initial sales ceiling PC VR developers can expect these days (those sales include those through Oculus' Home platform as well).
According to the survey, the Oculus Rift maintained an extremely slight user base lead over HTC's Vive platform throughout 2018. Windows Mixed Reality headsets lag way behind in the survey data, as they're owned by just 0.07 percent of Steam users.
Nearly three years after its consumer debut, the VR growth rate shown in this Steam survey suggests that the technology is far from dead among gamers. But headsets will have to keep up this level of growth for a while if they want to become more than an extremely niche part of the gaming landscape.