Is Virtual Reality Heading to Its Next Great Leap Forward?
From Virtual GameBoy to Oculus Rift, VR tech is always improving
Virtual reality's ride to ubiquity has been rough. A stint as a headache-inducing novelty in shopping malls across America in the Nineties killed its chances of being anything more than a gimmick for nearly two decades – until about five years ago, when major companies like Facebook and HTC made the case that modern technology had caught up to the original vision for VR, and began sending out prototype headsets to software developers.
When these units got into the hands of tech writers, the resulting shock and excitement of their first experiences led to a conga line of hyperbolic articles proclaiming it the Next Big Thing. The trend of feverish lauding hit its peak with the now-famous 2015 Time cover story "Why Virtual Reality Is About to Change the World," comparing VR trailblazers to cell phone early adopters and declaring that "virtual reality is the final platform." For Daniel Terdiman, senior writer at Fast Company, the public fervor around VR at the time felt both familiar and inevitable for such a futuristic-seeming piece of tech. "It's very easy to jump on this hype bandwagon and talk about it endlessly and breathlessly," Terdiman said. "I was certainly a part of that."
When consumer virtual reality finally reached store shelves in 2016, it did not become the immediate, world-changing success story tech enthusiasts had envisioned. Most manufacturers keep exact hardware sales numbers close to their chests, but market analysts estimate them to be in the hundreds of thousands per model rather than the millions of units sold of other consumer electronics devices such as cell phones and video game consoles.
The general public's reluctance to jump aboard the VR hype train stems from major hurdles the platforms ran into during their first years on the market. While some rudimentary, low-cost headsets exist that function by inserting a cell phone, truly immersive and interactive VR headsets cost hundreds of dollars and require powerful PCs that alone can easily cost more than $1,000 to build. VR setups can also be cumbersome, since high-end experiences need users to clear out dozens of square feet of space in their homes, set up sensors and motion controls, and remain tethered by wires at all times. The majority of the public just wasn't ready.
VR's introduction to the market has conformed well to the Gartner Hype Cycle, a model used to describe and predict consumer reaction to the introduction of new technology. In this model, new tech is met with an initial buildup of anticipation and enthusiasm, followed by a "trough of disillusionment" when it does not immediately live up to the hype. From that point on, consumer interest usually begins to slowly tick upward as the new technology matures and the public becomes more familiar with it.
According to Daniel Burwen, founder of Cognito Comics, there's too much of an experiential gap between VR's potential and the current market realities. "When you have to wear something on your face, that's a different sort of proposition than watching a screen, which we do all the time," he said. "But putting a headset on your face and blocking out all your peripheral perception is behavior that we don't always do."
But hope is certainly not lost for the future of virtual reality. Industry insiders are optimistic that the next few years will mark the beginning of a "second wave" of consumer VR. During this period, VR could make significant inroads toward mass-market viability thanks to several forthcoming advances intended to address the issues that have held the platform back.
Tony Parisi, head of VR/AR strategy at 3-D tool set maker Unity, predicts that the imminent launch of standalone headsets – not reliant on beefy computers or locked into specific phone brands – could spark a surge in customer interest. "You can spend a few hundred bucks and get a good consumer VR experience," Parisi said. "So you're going to have an affordable device, and one that's portable, too."
The other big market problem facing VR 2.0 is the lack of a clear killer app to get the public on board. Besides a handful of notable games and apps garnering attention for their novel use of the technology (such as HTC Vive pack-in Job Simulator, developed by Austin's own Owlchemy Labs), there are not enough standout VR experiences to entice most consumers to spend the considerable amount of money needed for a full VR setup. "That creates a chicken-and-egg cycle," Terdiman said. "Both [consumers and developers] are hesitant to go all in on the required investment to build a truly mainstream industry."
New advances in middleware and other software tool sets in the coming years will make VR games and apps quicker and cheaper to make, lowering development costs for content. Developers already producing content in VR's first two years on the market have put in the work required to figure out the medium's strengths and weaknesses, lessons that will be reflected going forward into the next cycle of virtual reality experiences. This altogether healthier software ecosystem promised by the second wave of VR is more likely to produce those essential killer apps to grab the public's attention.
Another potential factor in the incoming second wave, according to Burwen, could be attention from the many-headed beast of the Hollywood entertainment industry. Adapting popular intellectual properties to virtual reality could give the medium the push it needs to appeal to a wider demographic. "If you take ... a famous TV show or a movie, or an internet celebrity ... and you put them into VR, you're giving people a reason to go in there," Burwen said.
So if this second wave of VR hits like the insiders believe it will, don't be surprised if in the next two years your mom pesters you to help her see Beyoncé's new virtual album.
Baffled by Buzzwords: A Beginner's Guide to VR Terminology
VR: Virtual reality. The user's sight and hearing are totally replaced, giving him or her the impression of being in a totally new, interactable environment.
AR: Augmented reality. The user can still see and hear the world around them, but virtual visual elements and sounds are added. Pokémon appearing in the real world in Pokémon Go is a rudimentary example.
MR: Mixed reality. Similar to augmented reality, but virtual elements interact with real-world objects in a cohesive way that blends the two together.
XR: A catchall term for VR, AR, MR, and immersive tech in general.
LBE: Location-based experience/entertainment. Spaces with advanced XR setups that can be rented out by individuals or groups, similar to arcades or karaoke rooms.