Tech Talk: Will Virtual Reality Fade Into Irrelevance?

September 6, 2017 - Written By Daniel Golightly

Virtual reality (VR) may be poised to jump from a $1.8 billion consumer market in 2016 to a $28.3 billion consumer market in 2020, but there are some who think the technology might be dead in the water. More to the point there are plenty of analogies to draw between the relatively new technology and the expectations of 3D televisions, which have long-since lost relevance for the majority of consumers. A lot of the negative speculation can be traced back to three aspects of the technology as it stands today – namely hype, pricing, and general consumer interest. Each of those aspects also has some degree of interaction with the others and, while those companies willing to take on the challenges share some optimism about its future, VR technologies stand a very real chance of failing in the consumer market outside of enterprise use.

Since each of the various aspects linking the two technologies effectively feeds off of the others, it can be difficult to unweave them. To begin with, just as with 3D TVs, VR is very expensive, even for relatively novel experiences. Typical PC-based VR systems require a user to first have access to a high-end PC and then to pay for a compatible VR setup. Generally, combined costs for that can reach well above $1,500. On the other hand, there is only currently a single VR experience available for gaming consoles, found with Sony’s PlayStation VR. That system, including the console, still typically exceeds the $600 mark, once console and equipment are considered and that doesn’t include the cost of the VR media itself. Finally, VR can be used in a more mobile form thanks to Google’s Daydream and other systems such as Samsung’s Gear VR. Unfortunately, even those experiences cost close to $100, not including the cost of a smartphone that supports the technology – which often start out at a cost higher than $500. In fact, even using Google’s exception to that rule – Google Cardboard VR platform- requires users to have access to a smartphone that is capable of providing a good experience.

Tied directly into that is the level of hype built up around the VR experiences. Despite massive gains in terms of both hardware and software, each of the headsets is relatively bulky as compared to traditional mediums for taking in media. Each also has its own flaws and, beyond that, the weight of the systems, sub-par optimizations, screen technology, sensors, and more, are still not at a level that prevents users from feeling sick or overburdened. That can make the technology appear to be even less worth it, with regard to costs, and has the secondary effect of leaving customers feeling like the whole enterprise is severely overhyped. On top of that, content quality and availability are inconsistent, at best. That level of hype and disappointment could be paralleled to people’s expectations for 3D entertainment promised by the associated television sets. Many customers in that market expected more and were not happy with the requirement to wear specialized eyewear, the possible side effects associated with long-term 3D media exposure, or the lack of quality content to bring the experience to life in a truly immersive way. In much the same way, many of those who have tried VR associate the experience with headaches, feeling neaseuos, and with a less than immersive experence.

Making matters worse, VR also represents a fundamental change in the way media is viewed or interacted with. One major shift is in the level of social interaction that can be had with the technology. Traditional media can typically be consumed alone or in a group setting, but the vast majority of VR experiences happen in isolation from outside interaction. That sensation, in combination with the other two aspects of VR that are currently less than ideal, can and most likely does contribute to general consumer disinterest. While 3D media is still a fairly big business in movie theaters and elsewhere, it is difficult to imagine an immersive VR experience in a similar setting. Isolation plays a key role in that, but so does the overall lack of quality content. The primary obstacle to that aspect is generally found in the learning curve required to create content.

Tech companies are more optimistic and they may have good reason to be. Similarities between VR and other, now less relevant technologies – with regard to the build-up to VR and the possible pitfalls that need to be overcome – don’t necessarily mean that VR will suffer a similar fate. As Sony’s CEO Andrew House has said, this is simply “VR 1.0,” and VR may still be very much in its infancy. Meanwhile, that’s backed up by statements and actions from other companies. Talking about pricing, for example, Jason Rubin – vice president of content at Oculus – says that prices will converge over time as the technology becomes a “mass market phenomenon.” Content, in the meantime, as well as the other problems of VR hardware and software environments, are being addressed from every angle. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others are pushing to make content creation easier than ever before with new software API’s, development platforms, and hardware. Gaming software and other innovations in screen sharing could ultimately bring a kind of end to the isolation many of the current VR experiences carry with them. Meanwhile, the manufacturers of hardware are taking their time in implementing new and intriguing new hardware that will begin to solve some of the problems tied to that. With such a large portion of the tech industry as a whole taking part in the creation of VR hardware, creation tools, and content, it can be hard to imagine it ultimately failing to pick up steam. Although it still could, there is plenty of reason to believe otherwise.