Virtual Reality isn’t a fad, it will succeed at the right time

Virtual reality and Augmented reality are two of the buzz words of the moment. These technologies are forecasted to become the next technological revolution: according to many experts we are in a moment of disruption, exactly as we were when the first smartphone has been released. A lot of startups are growing inside this VR gold rush and many others are expected to come, since the projected turnaround for AR/VR market is huge. But there are still people that are afraid about the future: virtual reality has already failed in the 90s, so they are scared that this is going to happen again. I want to tell here my point of view: VR isn’t going to fail, it’s just going slowly.

Virtual Reality renaissance has started in 2012, thanks to Palmer Luckey and his Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift. From that moment on, VR market has begun to flourish and this technology started getting lots of expectations. Analysts started immediately to forecast huge numbers for the upcoming years and everyone was hyped about this. Reality is that the VR market has continuously grown, but has never reached that expected enormous numbers. At current time of writing, VR is still something regarding innovators and early adopters and its market is quite little. Due to this, lots of people have begun to wonder if Virtual Reality is going to fail. “VR is a fad, like in the ‘90s” is a comment I read every day in some VR-related forums.

The truth is that VR most probably isn’t going to fail. I can’t be sure about this, but there are three reasons why I have this belief:

  • I’ve tried many different VR applications, so I can really envision how it can disrupt different markets. Furthermore, I’ve spoken with people that are experimenting with this technology to solve problems in their field (like interior design, architecture, psychology, rehabilitation, etc…). These people are obtaining good results, so I’m sure that this technology is actually useful for enterprise applications;
  • I’ve demoed VR to hundreds of people and the bright eyes of every person after he/she has tried VR for the first time, that joy that I see in his/her look after he/she removes the headset tells me every time that this is truly a technology that is able to excite people like no other one. I myself continue to be amazed by it: when I’ve seen Oculus Studio’s Dear Angelica for the first time I was almost moved into tears, by just a 5 minutes experience;
  • All major technology companies are into it: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, Valve are all in VR, to cite only the most important ones. It would be strange that all these companies are investing in a technology if they weren’t almost sure that it would be a success.
HTC Vive and its controllers
HTC Vive headset and its VR controllers. It is produced by a joint work of HTC and Valve and it is considered the headset with the best tracking system on the market

When people ask to me on Quora if VR is going to fail, I always point them to my blog article about John Riccitiello stating that VR will start to take off in 2019. John Riccitiello is the CEO of Unity, the game engine used to produce most of the virtual reality experiences and he says that it’s perfectly normal that VR is going slowlier than expected. The reasons are:

  • Price of VR is too high. High-quality VR headsets (e.g. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive) are too expensive ($600-900) and require to be powered by a powerful PC to offer a good experience. These so-called “VR-ready PCs” are expensive, too ($1000) and the compound cost of the experience is prohibitive for most people;
  • Virtual simulation is still not perfect: emulation of visuals in VR is far from ideal and the user is still able to see pixels. Senses like haptics, smell and taste are almost never emulated, so simulation of an alternate reality is incomplete;
  • VR is absolutely not user friendly. Current headsets require the user to mount external cameras, calibrate systems, handle lots of USB cables. This is perfectly ok for a techie, but it’s hard when the product is destined to a generic customer. My father sometimes needs help for setting up a printer, which just requires to plug a single USB cable, I can’t imagine what could happen if he had to install a constellation of Oculus Sensors and calibrate them;
  • Content is too poor. There are currently no AAA-games for virtual reality. Big AAA-studios are ignoring this technology because its user base is too little for them to get back the money invested to produce a game. Most games on the stores are indie ones and a lot of them have been realized with the financial help of headsets producers that are pouring money into the market to make it grow. Furthermore, apart from games, there is very little out there on the stores, so VR headsets appear almost useless, apart from an entertainment point of view. This is why lots of people start fantasizing about the “VR Killer application, a mythological virtual reality application that will be so useful that all people will want to buy a VR headset just to have it. Of course, no one has ever seen it.

John Riccitiello sees that the market is evolving and this is why he has trust in this technology. Prices of headsets are going down and Oculus has recently announced an enormous discount on its products (Oculus+Rift will be in bundle at $399 for the next 6 weeks!), while Valve has presented a new cheaper tracking technology for next Vive evolutions. Even the price for a VR-ready PC has dropped, due to release of newer technologies (new graphics cards that have made the price of the previous ones to drop) and due to evolution of VR software that has now reduced the computational power needed by virtual experiences (e.g. Oculus ASW has made possible to have a VR-ready PC for something like $500). Next generations of headsets are expected to improve realism of simulation (e.g. through foveat rendering) and user-friendliness (e.g. becoming wireless). The Windows 10 headsets announced by Microsoft will be very cheap ($300) and will be able to offer a good quality VR experience for almost any Windows 10 PC, without the user having to mess with complicated setups. Some AAA games for VR have been announced, like Fallout 4 VR or Doom VFR.

acer mixed reality headset
Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset is a cheap headset offering a user-friendly VR experience: it has the power to disrupt the market (Image credit: Microsoft)

All these evolutions will attract more people to virtual reality and this will make the market bigger. This market increase will attract more software producers and in the end, when we’ll reach a critical mass of circa 200 million users, even the big studios will find VR interesting and they will start creating high-quality applications. This high-profile content will attract more users and this virtuous circle will make virtual reality to succeed. According to Riccitiello’s calculations, this will start around 2019. This will be the true “Killer application”: an amazing ecosystem where there are many users and many great products.

Analysts often are over-optimistic about this technology: every year I’ve seen their predictions failing, so my advice is not to trust their numbers too much. 2019 seems a realistic target to me. And notice that in 2019 VR will start to take off, to disrupt everything, but will still take time to be widespread as today’s PCs.

Are we 100% sure about this? Of course not. The future is always uncertain: Wii seemed a technology able to revolutionize gaming, got an initial incredible success, but now it is slowly dying. There are still some things that may block VR from widespread adoption, like:

  • simulation sickness: VR experiences have to be crafted very carefully or they create symptoms like nausea and dizziness;
  • social acceptance: we’ll have to see if people will feel comfortable in having a headset strapped on their face for hours;
  • house space: best VR experiences require the player having free space around him/her, something like at least 2mx1.5m of free space and not all people may have such space in their houses;

So, while we are almost sure that virtual reality will be successful for some enterprise usages (e.g. training, psychology, etc…), we have still some little doubts about the fact that it will disrupt the consumer market. I still believe in its success for the reasons listed above, though.

A last word about Augmented Reality: AR is the little cousin of VR and while these technologies have some overlap, they are pretty different and serve different purposes. Augmented Reality is predicted to completely change our way of living, since it will make us all drop our smartphones in favor of wearing a pair of AR glasses. Its predicted turnaround is huge, but it’s way behind of VR in term of timing. Current generation of AR glasses are absolutely rough and are unusable from a consumer standpoint. Next generation is expected for 2018-2019 and surely we’ll need at least 5 years to make it really usable. So, it is going even more slowly than VR.

HoloLens medical augmented reality exhibition
A user wearing HoloLens glasses: while current generation of AR headsets are still too rough, it is very easy to envision from them why AR will be so huge in the future

As a conclusion, I believe that Virtual and Augmented Reality will need time to become widespread, but will surely succeed. This is a technological revolution of that ones that happen once every 10 years, an opportunity for us all to jump on a new train at the right time and start leading it. There are currently no standard, no clear leaders in this industry, so we have the occasion to become the leaders ourselves. Let’s not miss this opportunity to lead this revolution.

(Header image credit: Immotionar)

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AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I’ve no idea what I’m doing.

I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I’ve still not waken up…