The reality of virtual reality

Display table in an airport shop. Sign says “Virtual Reality starts here”.

In Oslo airport last month I saw this table display in an electronics shop. “Virtual Reality starts here”, it says. Two VR devices were offered for sale: the Samsung Gear VR, and a smartphone-based unit by Homido, which was selling for 699 NOK (about £63, although it would have been cheaper then, pre-Brexit referendum).

The previous month in Greenwich Market, here in London, I saw a stall selling robust, own-branded Google Cardboard units. They were about £12, I recall. I saw a few people try them and look quite impressed.

These are two small signs of virtual reality breaking into the mainstream. Or, at least, trying to; because right now it’s uncertain whether VR can fully make that step.

I should state up front that I’m a fan of VR. I’m excited to see it become commoditised, to visualise the possibilities inherent in what Kevin Kelly calls the “internet of experiences”. It’s really exciting to watch people’s reactions as they try VR for the first time.

But there’s a real possibility that VR doesn’t have lasting value beyond that initial reaction. The risk is that VR headsets follow the pattern of the Nintendo Wii: hailed as a breakthrough mainstream device, huge initial public impact, then slowly abandoned over time as interest wanes, left to only the hardcore gamers.

It’s hard to gauge the public interest in VR. In tech and advertising circles it’s receiving a lot of attention, we know it’s an area that the major players are into: Google, Facebook, Samsung, HTC, and Twitter all have VR teams, and you can bet that Apple are investigating it secretly too. But in terms of consumer demand?

We should know more about sales by the end of the year: between now and Christmas we should see the Oculus Rift start to ship at scale, as well as the cheaper and more accessible Sony Playstation VR. The first devices to meet Google’s Daydream standard should also become available in that time. What we know for now is that a recent estimate puts Vive sales at around 100,000; not bad, but not stunning. The Gear VR could ship an estimated 10 million units by the end of 2016, as they’re giving away the headset with their new phones in many markets.

But even if the non-gaming public have access to a headset, will they want to use it? Or re-use it? We don’t know. We can be sure it won’t be for lack of effort from manufacturers and content producers; there are some really smart people and teams out there considering VR as a distinct art form and experimenting to find new ways to tell stories in it.

But I have one major problem with VR: it isolates. It’s typical of the ‘software above the level of a single person’ problem: it’s not built for people who live in groups. For me to use VR at home I have to block out my wife entirely. In any other leisure activity we do at home, even when reading, watching or playing different things, we’re only separate, not isolated.

And I can’t use a VR headset out of my home, because I’ll lose awareness of my surroundings (not to mention the bulk of carrying it around). So it becomes something I can only use in very limited, occasional moments, and then it becomes much harder to justify the expense. Perhaps this isn’t a universal problem, but I suspect it will be common.

Headsets need to become lighter, cheaper, and more easily allow access to the external world. I’m sure the technology will get there. But I’m less certain there will be sufficient audience to sustain it until that point. We’ll find out in 2017.

Also published on Medium.