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.