Chinese consumers test VR at an arcade chain in Beijing © Getty
Rather than read about virtual reality, you need to try it. The mesmerising sensation of VR is impossible to convey in words. I expect the telephone, radio and television also needed seeing and hearing in their early days.
VR is more difficult to explain than almost any other new consumer technology. When I first tried a Sony Walkman in 1979, I was convinced and bought it within a minute. But with VR, you need time.
This could be a stumbling block for retailers. One fashion company director last month wanted to experience VR as a consumer and to explore how he might use the technology in retail. He was given an appointment for a demonstration six weeks ahead at a London department store, such was the demand for 30-minute slots.
“It’s not a small purchase to make on the strength of you saying it’s amazing, when I don’t even know if it’ll give me headaches,” he explained. It was a good point: a decent VR headset costs about £700, with hardware costs of another £1,000.
I was discussing this problem with an assistant in a cake shop. Athena Loizou has an Edinburgh university MA in Chinese and economics, and (I love millennials) knows a lot about VR.
Many VR headset manufacturers have also been notably reticent in promoting their products. I have nagged Oculus Rift and Sony for samples to try for my How To Spend It column without success.
“So, have you,” said Ms Loizou, while brilliantly upselling me some tarts to go with the quiches and brioches, “come across the new way people are being introduced to VR?”
Across China, she explained, pop-up stands are opening, where people pay to try — but not buy — VR. She had even come across a VR pop-up inside an office building in Beijing.
Ms Loizou added, while handing me her business card with the baked goods, that she had discovered a VR pop-up in London’s Camden. At Virtually Reality, she said, you pay £20 to try VR systems and they seem to be doing a roaring trade.
These ingenious enterprises, known as VRcades, are not only popping up across China but have also become a thing in San Francisco, Toronto and Sydney. But the Camden venture seems to be the UK’s first.
Alexander Cohen (left) and Matt Pate outside their east London premises © Jonathan Margolis/FT
Alexander Cohen, its founder, and Matt Pate, co-director, plan in February to take a smart new shop in London’s East End, having moved out of Camden. “Originally, I just wanted to play with this stuff but there was nowhere to do it properly,” says Mr Cohen, 26, from Brisbane in Australia.
They tested the idea on a street corner in Notting Hill in west London, then between August and December with hardware loaned by HTC and Samsung, they sold VR tryouts to about 10,000 people. Typically, he says, 10 groups of people a day would come by for a 30-minute experience.
Virtually Reality do not sell VR hardware; it is purely an experiential retail space subsidised by brands.
Messrs Cohen and Pate, 23, say they estimate that selling VR experiences as a business has another 18 months’ life left. They are already showcasing other technology that is new and awkward to demonstrate, from drones to electric skateboards to conversational computers such as Amazon’s Alexa. Later they want to be a retail route to market for a wider variety of tech start-ups.
In the meantime, a lot of consumers are yet to embrace VR. People’s delight at trying it still amazes them, even after seeing so many others discover it.
“When people go into VR, you see inspiration just hit them,” said Mr Pate. “They immediately start thinking of what it could be used for. Everyone has their own ideas.”
Retail may be having a problem selling VR. It may be that the technology never quite works because of the difficulty recruiting enough new adherents.
But with smart young minds to wrestle with not only the technology but also clever ways to sell it, I remain optimistic that this exciting venture will break through — perhaps a little late.