Virtual reality is the breakthrough technology that seems perpetually on the verge of actually breaking through. It’s been around in some form or the other for almost 20 years, and yet, is still seen as a niche innovation, best suited for gamers. But even within that niche, virtual reality hasn’t taken off the way we expected it to. So what happened?
Back in 2018, I wrote a research report on the emerging business use cases for augmented, mixed and virtual reality and was pretty bullish on the technology. It was hard not to be — Facebook had just released Oculus Go, the first cordless VR headset, and gifted it to all the attendees of its F8 conference that year. At $199 a piece, this was the first affordable VR headset entering the market. As I put it on and demoed a virtual roller coaster, I was blown away by how real the experience felt. I walked away convinced that anybody who tried VR would think it was the most incredible technological innovation in the last 10 years.
As I enthusiastically demoed the headset for my work colleagues and family, I began to notice a common theme. After the first 10 mins of oohing and aahing over the roller coaster game, there was always a “now what” moment with anybody who tried it. The excitement had quickly worn off, and I didn’t have a new shiny thing lined up to show them.
That, in a nutshell, sums up the problem with VR. The technology is a wonder, and it continues to become even more impressive. However, the software simply isn’t as compelling. The platform doesn’t have any blockbuster games the way Xbox, PlayStation or even mobile phones have. And while VR headset makers like Oculus, HTC and Sony continue to make great leaps in making VR headset more affordable and less clunky, the experiences within them are still, for the most part, mediocre.
As Ben Kuchera acknowledges in his article for Polygon, “There’s a secret the VR industry doesn’t want you to know, however, and they’ll never talk about it. Especially since people like older virtual reality enthusiasts like me are often so ready to praise the latest breakthrough: For all the exponential growth the technology has seen in just the last decade, as it exists right now, VR is still horrible.”
When it comes to commercial use cases, companies are more likely to get value out of augmented reality, which enhances existing physical experiences, rather than forcing you to immerse yourself in a virtual one. And ultimately, the average consumer simply doesn’t see the value of owning a geeky-looking headset to play a few games that make you dizzy and disoriented after 30 mins.
So what’s it going to take for VR to truly take off? As is usually the case, it’s a combination of many small factors that eventually will lead to the tipping point. These include lighter, less cumbersome headsets, affordable price points, and seamless integration with existing devices. But the single most important factor will be the software. For VR to be a compelling buy, it has to offer something exclusive to it, an experience that simply can’t be replicated outside it. This could be a blockbuster game, a new way to experience interactive cinema or something along the lines of a shared social experience within a virtual environment. Think of how Netflix and Hulu only really took off when they started offering original content that was exclusive to their platforms. VR has to make the same play in order to capture the moment and become mainstream. Till then, we’ll refrain from continuing to call it a “breakthrough technology.”