Though it may seem virtual reality has emerged in the last few years, the technology has been around for quite some time. The term was coined in 1987, but head-mounted displays (HMDs) have been around since the 1960s, with some enthusiasts arguing panoramic paintings and murals were the earliest forms of VR, as they were intended to fill the viewer’s entire field of vision, making them feel present in a particular setting.
Given its decades-long existence, the recent eruption of interest surrounding the medium comes down to a couple of chief factors: improved technology and increased investment. With giants like Facebook, Google, HTC, Samsung and Sony leading the HMD charge, it’s hard to ignore the din around immersive technologies, and, considering the advancements in both hardware and software, it’s no surprise the industry is putting massive effort behind VR promotion.
However, although adoption has been growing, it’s not been as rapid as the industry had hoped, and VR isn’t quite part of mainstream pop culture yet. While many cite the cost of HMDs and high-performance PCs as the main prohibitive factor, there are other elements to consider. Compatibility is a huge issue across the VR landscape. Though mobile HMDs like Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream make VR consumption more accessible than PC counterparts, the former only works with Galaxy devices, and the latter is supported by Pixel smartphones, and a few others with limited market share. This makes fragmentation a concern, as a growing selection of headsets will likely render many software offerings incompatible across devices.
Still, analysts agree that the future of VR is bright. IDC forecasts VR HMD sales will grow at a strong clip, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 48.7 percent through 2021. Additionally, augmented reality and VR headsets collectively are expected to sell 100 million units in 2021, with a 5-year CAGR of57.7 percent. CCS Insight reports “sales of dedicated VR headsets to grow to 22 million units by 2021 — an 800 percent increase over 2017. Market to be worth $7.7 billion by 2021.”
Keeping these predictions in mind, there are a few factors which might not only help achieve analyst projections, but also help to hasten them:
- Additional hardware improvements: Though HMDs have come a long way since Ivan Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles in 1968, they’re still cumbersome and not comfortable enough to wear for extended periods of time. Today’s sleek and futuristic-looking HMDs weigh around a pound, which may not seem like much, but can become tiring and fatigue the wearer. Following the trajectory of the mobile phone, once HMDs have become more refined, mainstream acceptance is inevitable.
- Abundant, quality content: When Google launched Daydream, it did not merely release a HMD. Instead, it paired the launch with an exciting virtual experience: an immersive preview of the anticipated film, Fantastic Beasts. As with any interactive technology, if there’s no content, the hardware is essentially useless. Remember the Nintendo consoles of the 1980s and 1990s? They generally came with the latest iteration of the Super Mario franchise, encouraging rapid adoption and making gamers out of millions.
- Unintimidating stepping stones: For many, VR is a completely new experience which can seem overwhelming. How to know which HMD to choose and if accompanying hardware is necessary can be daunting for the average consumer.
This is where augmented reality comes into play. Though most people may not realize it, they’ve been exposed to AR when watching sporting events like the Super Bowl and Olympics. Superimposed yard lines and swimming pool lane markers are very simple forms of AR, but use the same technology as universally beloved Pokémon GO, which left a Pikachu-shaped mark on the American psyche in 2016. Additionally, since 77 percent of Americans own the only hardware needed to experience AR – a smartphone – there’s no additional associated cost or decision-making process. Moreover, Apple’s recently-announced ARKit provides advanced augmented reality capabilities on iOS so consumers can control and create content instead of passively consuming it.
While AR may help usher in mainstream VR adoption, hardware and content will play major roles in exposing the technology to the masses and utilizing its full potential. Putting aside the industries upon which VR has already left its mark — gaming, real estate, sports — tools which can be used in conjunction with VR experiences will propel the medium forward. VR is meant to immerse people in different worlds, making them believe they are really there. With advances in haptic technology as well, soon people won’t just believe they’re in a different setting, they will actually feel it. The limitless possibilities of pairing VR and haptic tech will not only help it gain a stronger foothold, but also shape the future of the industry.