Virtual reality technology is starting to become within reach for millions of consumers around the world, and there are likely only a handful of companies who will dominate the early days of the industry. Those who can build a dominant position could have a head start in a multibillion-dollar opportunity, and investors should start paying attention now. 

Right now, most VR development is taking place within the walls of the biggest tech companies in the world. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), HTC, Valve, Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL), and NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA). They're the ones to watch this year and into 2018. 

Woman wearing a VR headset.

Image source: Getty Images.

Facebook

When Facebook bought Oculus in 2014, it was an out-of-the-box acquisition for the social media giant. Facebook didn't have any VR experience and was only beginning to get into video in general. In 2017, Oculus is one of the leading VR companies and has some important technology being launched in 2018 with a stand-alone headset that's analogous to VR on your smartphone and a high-end headset that doesn't need to be tethered to a computer. 

Oculus is also building a platform for developers to sell content, which may be where it really makes money. The store and operating system is analogous to Apple's iPhone and the App store, only in VR. If Oculus can become the preferred VR platform of developers and consumers, it'll be in a valuable position. 

HTC and Valve

The HTC Vive is a VR headset developed by HTC and Valve, launched shortly after the Oculus Rift. It has arguably been the more successful VR platform so far, largely because it leveraged Valve's Steam platform to distribute games and other content. The platform was also designed so it could be used by consumers in the home or businesses like VR arcades. 

HTC plans to launch an upgrade to its high-end wireless VR system in 2018, which will be wireless but still have a lot of the same capabilities as the original Vive. In a competition against Facebook, HTC and Valve's advantage is the Steam platform and the fact that they can build VR as a stand-alone business rather than trying to fold it into a social network

Alphabet

Right now, Alphabet's Google is a low-end VR provider but is probably doing more than any company to bring VR to the masses. YouTube can play VR and is most likely available on the smartphone in your pocket today. It's also working on hardware with items like Cardboard and Daydream that work with standard smartphones. 

What Google is already bringing to the table is a platform on which developers and content creators can put their VR content. Google's hardware is really a tool to get the platform to customers and could become the center of the mass market VR world. 

NVIDIA

Whether it's on a high-end computer or a smartphone, virtual reality takes a lot of computing and graphics power. NVIDIA is the company with the chip technology that's currently at the core of the future of virtual reality. 

NVIDIA's graphics cards have become a standard for high-end computers required for VR systems like Rift and Vive and I would expect it to play a big role in future VR devices. 

What's really made VR possible in the past few years are the chips that can process quickly enough to power VR headsets. Hardware developers have to build around devices that will be readily available to consumers and right now NVIDIA seems to be the chipmaker of choice for most VR companies. 

Virtual reality may be the next smartphone

In 2017, companies were building the technology and platforms that are early in the development of virtual reality. In 2018, better and lower cost hardware will make the technology accessible to millions of people around the world. Having an early mover advantage will be big in VR and Facebook, HTC, Valve, Alphabet, and NVIDIA are five companies investors should watch closely as the industry grows. 

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Travis Hoium has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Facebook, and Nvidia. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.