Though many attendees at last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo still reached for traditional gaming consoles, virtual reality stole the show.

Initially just a curiosity attraction at malls and theme parks, virtual reality has been thrust into the limelight thanks in large part to technological advancements made by Irvine’s Oculus VR, a virtual reality headset company purchased by Facebook Inc. last year for $2 billion.

The rise of virtual reality was evident on the floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the number of E3 exhibitors jumped by 50 percent over last year’s extravaganza. The Entertainment Software Association, sponsor of the annual event, said nearly 300 exhibitors took slots this year, up from 200.

Attendance was also up slightly, with an estimated 50,000 people coming this year, up from 48,000. Some of that increase was attributed to the roughly 5,000 fans let into the traditionally industry-only event for the first time. Increasingly, E3 is leaving its roots as a place to cut retail distribution deals and becoming a celebration for anyone who loves video games.

And the industry is watching virtual reality closely. For years, the technology has been plagued by poorly conceived visuals and expensive headsets, but Oculus’ Rift headset provides exceptional renderings at a relatively low price point, capturing the gaming industry’s imagination.

With the advances, a mass market in virtual reality gaming seems to be in reach and that has drawn players large and small to the arena. Sony Corp., HTC and Samsung have all launched their own virtual reality headsets.

Not wanting to be left out of the loop, many large developers of console games are also closely watching the virtual reality industry. Some are taking a more cautious approach, but others have waded in to grant small contracts to independent developers, often to create cutesy, experimental games.

“I think a lot of them haven’t had a reason to venture into virtual reality,” said Holden Link, founder of L.A. virtual reality gaming studio Turbo Button. But there is a risk, too, in being late to the game.

“There’s a lot of companies looking at what happened with mobile and how some of them got caught off guard with the explosion of mobile games,” said Link, who was demonstrating his offerings at a booth in the independent developers section at E3. “Even if virtual reality is not a sure bet in their eyes yet, a lot of them want to get started somehow.”

So as big players in the virtual reality industry try and suss out a path forward, L.A. independent gaming studios and hobbyists are finding some early victories.

“It’s a lot easier for us to pitch games in the last six months compared to last year,” said Link. “We’ve been doing this as hobbyists and passion projects for long enough that we have the skills to pull it off.”

Early days

For its part, Turbo Button has been showing studios a virtual racing game for the Samsung VR platform called “SMS Racing,” in which players must send virtual text messages as they drive around a track. The game helps acquaint players and studios alike with the best approaches to building, selling and playing virtual reality games.

Despite the enthusiasm at E3 and the buzz created by advances in headsets, motion control devices – the hardware necessary for simulating movement – appear to be lagging.

Manufacturers at the conference displayed a variety of motion control devices, including motion-sensing virtual guns, virtual walkers and gloves. No device, however, was especially compelling.

Still, with motion control hang-ups in mind, gaming companies are preparing for a world where virtual reality is their next big money maker.

“There are some very bullish forecasts for how many headsets we will be selling over the next couple of years,” said Link. At this stage, he said, headset development is moving quickly and there is not enough content to feed what could be huge demand.

“If those games are going to be coming out,” he said, “teams have to get started on them now.”

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