When I first started this article, my original title was “if virtual reality is so great, how come you don’t have one?” I’ve been alternating between great optimism and pessimism on the virtual reality (VR) market for the last year and, while I lean toward the optimistic view, it’s also clear the market has not crossed the chasm into mainstream adoption (see Geoffrey Moore’s book for a description) despite plentiful investments in technology and content development.
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The Who’s Tommy
It’s been over a year since HTC introduced the production Vive headset and Oculus launched Rift. Later in 2016, Sony shipped the PlayStation VR headset for the PlayStation 4. On the mobile VR front, there have been three generations of Gear VR headsets, and Google has both the entry level Cardboard and the more advanced Daydream headsets as well. In addition, there are a number of smaller vendors with PC connected headsets and smartphone “drop-in” headsets. Yet, with all this variety of hardware and a fair amount of content as well, why don’t more people have and use VR on a regular basis?
For example, I have yet to see one person on an airplane or train or waiting at an airport or train station using a VR headset. Why is that? Why have we not seen more mobile VR in public spaces? After all, mobile VR is inexpensive and it should be a great way to kill some time. Certainly the more advanced PC and console tethered VR headsets are not for transportation, but it’s harder to judge how many more people are using VR headsets at home.
There are number of factors why I believe VR has not become more pervasive today, despite many enthusiasts. For mobile VR, I think the greatest failing to date is that smartphones are not been designed for VR. The displays and electronics on recent smart phones are not optimized for continuous, graphics-intensive VR action that stress system-on-chip (SoC) in the handset. Rather, most phone SoCs are optimized for long battery life, web browsing, image processing, music playback, and other more mundane tasks. This may be changing with the recent release of the Samsung Galaxy 8, which uses the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835.
Still, mobile VR is a compromise between the function of a smart phone handset as a smart phone and the function of mobile VR. Today most smart phones will overheat or drain the batteries too quickly when running intense VR modes because of the stress it places on internal components to render stereo images at high frame rates. Yet without high refresh rates (over 60Hz), mobile VR doesn’t work well and can cause people to become nauseous due to the lag between movements and image update.
PC-tethered VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require pricy high-performance PC’s, which push the cost of a VR set up over $1500, including the headsets and controllers. At these high prices, only a few dedicated fans of VR have been willing to invest in such a setup. I happen to be one of those people, but at the same time I was able to build a VR-capable PC using parts I already had. Yet even with my VR setup sitting right next to my work desk, I do not feel compelled to strap into VR on a regular basis. The experiences in VR are interesting and immersive, but I have not found them to be so compelling that would spend time in VR on a daily basis. It is often easier to play a regular video game on a regular 2D monitor.
My personal experience is that to date, I haven’t found the “killer app” for VR. No one has created content that has generated such wide enthusiasm or a regular AAA gaming title that has created the need to migrate to VR. AAA gaming titles often drive video game console sales, but those titles are expensive to produce and require a wide distribution to pay back the development costs. So far VR does not have its Call of Duty or World of Warcraft title. There are some titles such Robo Recall, Job Simulator, SUPERHOT VR, and Arizona Sunshine, though, are getting some traction with their fun and immersive game play. But in a recent interview, the head of VR and AR for game engine maker Unity, Tony Parisi, said “We believe in the long haul, we don’t know how long it’s going to take, we believe in the long-term success of this technology. But, in the meantime, I can’t make an economic recommendation.”
Many people believe that the PlayStation VR headset would be the volume leader in high performance tethered VR. And so far, that appears to be correct – with Sony revealing in June that it had sold over one million units. Consoles are the most cost-effective way of getting into a tethered head-mounted display, especially if you already owned a PlayStation console. Unfortunately, the PlayStation 4 console was not originally optimized for VR, but appears to have been adapted well enough for lower quality content. That said, I believe there is still a social stigma of wearing a VR headset in your living room (unless you live alone), because it indicates the wearer is simply excluding others from their experience.
Usually only one person can be in VR at a time, making it poor social game solution. Plus, VR headsets are expensive, so most consumers can’t afford more than one, even if there were more social VR games. There are exceptions – Don’t Stop Talking and No One Will Explode mixes the game play between the person in the headset and the rest of the crowd to solve a puzzle. It will take more content like it to make VR an acceptable social gaming experience. And this is where I have the most hope – the more inventive and experimental games will come from smaller studios (“indies”) and these will push VR content into new areas and make the experience more unique and compelling.
I go to many of the conferences that feature VR demos (CES, Game Developer Conference, GPU Technology Conference, Augmented World Expo, to name a few) and often they are entertaining, but we only experience these demos in short doses, which is not an indication of market success. Some events allow more time to explore.
HTC Vive X Demo Day
HTC Vive X VR accelerator program has a $100M investment fund to build such unique content and already has over sixty investments. There are five accelerator locations – two in China, and one each in Taipei, Israel, and San Francisco (SF). I was at the SF office recently for a Vive Demo Day, where Vive X brought in companies from its world-wide offices.
Many of the application programs were design for business-to-business (B2B) markets – training (including sports), simulation, healthcare, even virtual human resources (remote interviewing). One company from Israel, +One, created a virtual environment for language and inter-cultural social interaction training. It can also include bio-feedback to understand stress during the training and provides quantified scoring. I can also see the technology can be used for speaker training – especially for people with public speaking phobias.
Also at the Vive X Demo Day were some games. An interesting game from Red-Accent VR tries to recreate a full-fledged Basketball game, including virtual dunking. The game mechanics take some time to learn, but you can work up a sweat. They believe VR eSports can be a $1B market in 2020. The goal is location-based games today (arcades) and a home version by end of 2018.
Another haptic design is Korea-based Thermo Real, which can create temperature (both hot and cold) and (mild) discomfort simulation. The design is a flexible material with addressable thermo-electric points. Depending on current flow, the unit delivers heat or cool, or a mix of both to individual sites on the flexible material. I tried it and the demo was quite effective. This company’s business model is strictly B2B – selling modules and licensing the technology.
I expect to see more leading-edge immersion technologies at the annual SIGGRAPH conference in LA at the end of July. This conference is part industry, part academic and always cutting edge. I'll report on that conference in August.
Building a Community in VR
The newest virtual community in Oculus VR is Facebook Spaces (Beta). It’s designed around the Facebook social graph – so it helps to have Facebook friends with VR setups. The advantage of communities like Sansar are that they are a better way to meet people interested in VR that are not already in your social graph.
Facebook Introduced Spaces at the 2017 F8 Conference
My experience with creating my virtual avatar (VR representative) in Facebook Spaces was made more difficult by a poor selection menu and selection process. The other problem with Facebook Spaces is that it tries to create a virtual social space you want to spend time in, but that’s not a realistic option today.
I also had a chance to experience the latest virtual world from Linden Labs, the makers of the original virtual world Second Life recently. Their newest world, Sansar, is natively VR enabled. Like Second Life, the idea is to inhabit a world of your own making – where you can create fully custom objects, characters, and environments. It’s VR for creators. There’s an economy in virtual good like Second Life but with a different economic model. Some of the earlier environments are very compelling and I expect it to build a vibrant community.
Another user great experience is Google Earth in VR. While the new Google Earth is already a good interactive experience, with virtual tours and the ability to visit places around the globe in VR, the experience is even more magical. Another experience that makes VR special is Tilt Brush, where you can paint in a full immersive 3D space.
One of the biggest inhibitors to mainstream adoption I still see is that every experience has a different set of controls – there are no consistent rules for selections in virtual space. Moving consists of some free local movement within the safety zone (HTC calls it chaperone system) and the ability to teleport to more distant locations. All headsets have different hand controllers and selections are different. Think about the early automobile market, where steering mechanisms were different from car to car, and braking systems were radically different in operation and placement. Standardization enables market growth.
Building a Lasting VR Market
Today, VR is something consumers dive into for a short time. The experience is not yet comfortable enough for hours of time – at least not for most people. Facebook is trying to create an environment for extended time in VR, but it’s ahead of the hardware that will entice people to be willing to do so. The concern for content creators is that we know people are willing to spend hours on their 2D PC, but they need enough people willing to spend hours in VR. Some companies are betting you will. Big Screen is building a virtual desktop environment all in VR, so you have your 2D space in 3D. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help you see your keyboard. And regular 2D monitor makers will keep improving their products to make them more immersive with curved, higher-resolution, super-wide displays and improved color gamut.
A virtual desktop display in VR
There are additional hardware platforms coming for VR. HTC and Oculus are both working on “stand alone” VR headsets that do not need a PC. Even the PC HMDs are working on wireless connections to eliminate the long cable that often gets tangled and is a tripping risk. Microsoft has expanded upon its HoloLens program with Windows Mixed Reality that will support VR headset from 3rd party companies later this year. The Microsoft-based VR headsets will be cheaper than the Oculus and HTC HMDs, but will still be tethered to PCs. The new hardware could create a new spike in VR popularity, but we’ve yet to get all the specs and content.
Does this mean that VR is doomed to be a fad like 3D stereoscopic TVs?
The copout answer is: it’s too early to tell. Of course, I’d like to predict that VR will eventually become in a pervasive technology and we will see people around with VR headsets everywhere. When VR is good, it can be really immersive and a transportive experience. But is it compelling enough for people to spend significant amount of time in VR (assuming prices come down)? To date the answer is: no. But I have seen enough of a glimmer in the possibilities to keep me optimistic that we can get through this VR chasm.
We're not gonna take it
Gonna break it
Gonna shake it
Let's forget it better still
The Who’s Tommy
Principal Analyst, Tirias Research