By Abhirup Roy and Arathy S Nair
(Reuters) - It sounded so promising.
Anyone, anywhere would be able to strap on a headset in their living room and be able to experience events anywhere in the world - or outside of it - as if they were really there.
Virtual reality (VR) technology was long seen as the next big thing. But real reality always seemed to get in the way.
For years, it was the costly and bulky equipment; More recently, the sparse investment in software because of a lack of consumer-ready headgear.
Now, that could change.
Oculus, the VR business bought for $2 billion by Facebook Inc last year, said this week it would start shipping a consumer version of its Rift headset in early 2016, raising hopes that investment in VR software will finally take off.
"I have been waiting for virtual reality since I was a little boy 30 years ago," said Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie Securities in New York.
"Our view is that things are radically different this time."
About 2.7 million VR headsets, including versions aimed at app and content developers, could be sold in 2015, according to technology consultancy KZero.
With the launch of more consumer-friendly versions, total VR sales are expected to jump to 39 million in 2018, helping software companies alone rake in $4.6 billion - up from a projected $129 million this year.
"We believe that many very deep-pocketed companies will be in this space soon," Schachter said.
Sony Corp and Taiwan's HTC Corp are among the big hardware makers planning to launch consumer headsets - HTC by the end of 2015 and Sony next year.
Oculus partnered with Samsung Electronics Co Ltd to build the developer version of the South Korean company's mobile VR headset, Gear VR Innovator Edition, which was released in the United States in December. Samsung is expected to release a consumer-version Gear VR by the end of the year.
"This is the right time for early stage investors," said Mike Rothenberg, founder and CEO of Rothenberg Ventures, a San Francisco venture capital firm that has invested in VR startups.
Santa Barbara, California-based WorldViz plans to release a number of VR software apps, which can be used in industries such as oil and gas, aerospace, education, and entertainment this year, and expects revenue to double, founder and President Peter Schlueer said.
Gaming and entertainment apps are expected to drive initial uptake of VR hardware.
But the advent of user-friendly and low-cost gear will also spur adoption by educational institutions, the military and industry.
Ford Motor Co, for instance, uses VR headsets to help test car designs.
Oculus has not disclosed pricing for the consumer Rift. Co-founder Nate Mitchell has said it will be "affordable" but pricier than the Gear VR, which costs around $200.
EON Reality, based in Irvine, California, and NextVR, headquartered in Laguna Beach, California, are among the most prominent software companies hoping to cash in on the VR boom.
"At the end of the day, content is going to be the most important piece, because if that doesn't work, it doesn't matter what type of hardware device you have," EON Reality Chief Executive Mats Johansson said.
Mary Spio, president of Next Galaxy Corp, a Miami Beach company whose Netflix-like platform delivers VR content, said software makers have been waiting for proof of success of the hardware.
"I think we are going to see a slow build up of content and then we will start to see an avalanche of content maybe a few months after the Oculus (Rift) hits," Spio said.
"I think that 2016 really is going to be when we see that inflection, the true transition for virtual reality."
(Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Ted Kerr)