A little more than a year ago, Facebook acquired Oculus VR (Virtual Reality helmet designer and manufacturer), for 2 billions dollars—kick off to a serie of investments and start up in this field.
All manufacturers, from Intel to Samsung, are following and contributing to this new hype. Content studios, equipment developers, study tours, cameras, developers, are rushing into the race. (see Medium article) Of course, in a self-fulfilling prophecy approach, forecasts are flying through the roof, betting on a market that will reach $150B in the next five years !
But the hype ignores some key facts that point to 3D, augmented reality or even VR 1.0 most likely failing.
I wrote a master thesis, called “Virtual Reality Myth and Reality” in 1994, and have been following this market for the last 20 years. By doing a sanity check about the status of the market, I will dare to state that virtual reality will continue to be virtual for many years, at least for the mass market, as augmented reality and 3D are.
Here are three reasons virtual reality will likely stay virtual for years to come:
1/ It offers a pathetic user experience.
I’m not always sure if all the people writing about VR have actually tested the equipment and user experience. Setting up and using a Virtual Reality helmet is pretty painful for the following reasons:
- The set-up is convoluted: Except for the Samsung VR helmet, the level of expertise needed is far above the average tech user. In fact, the technical skills needed to use most VR products currently on the market will make the configuration only accessible to people with a strong tech background.
- The screen resolution: To have a good immersion, you need to have a decent resolution. The fact that you watch a screen so close to your eyes makes this expectation even bigger. A 4K resolution is the minimum needed and yet none the VR helmet offer this resolution.
- Smooth move: Once you have a great definition, you need to propose a high refresh rate of the screen or FPS (frame per second) in order to offer smooth display when you move. The right level should be around 90 frames per second to 120 frames per second.
- Hardware console: To manage a 4K resolution picture at 90 to 120 frames per second properly, you need to have a high tier boosted PC, a configuration that costs at least $2000 . As a reminder even the latest console PS4 is not powerful enough to manage a 4Kgame.
- Leach: It is never shown on photos about VR, but except the Samsung VR which is a plug-and-play solution with a low resolution, you always need to have cable that links your helmet to to the console / PC. It’s pretty uncomfortable after a while.
2/ There’s no customer.
Just because something is innovative, cool, and has massive investment doesn’t mean it will be successful. The most successful products solve a problem for customers or fulfil a need. At its core, virtual reality does neither. For the moment, there are only three potential type of users that seem to be candidates for the VR market.
- The Gamer: At the first glance, the gamer sounds like VR’s number one customer. And it is true that VR provides a real added value to video games, especially in the first-person shooter and racing categories. In addition gamers are technologically savvy and open to investing. Nevertheless the segment is very demanding. The innovation around 3D games and 3D TV was focusing on these natural target. Mass market 3D never took off, even for the gamer. There is a risk that it happened as well for the VR
- The Porn Watcher: While consumers of adult content would seem like an obvious major target, there are several, seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of making virtual porn a reality. For one, the equipment to provide feedback and interaction for the user doesn’t exist for the mass market. In addition, this market isn’t as fanatical as the gaming market, making it less likely that they’d be willing to shell out the big bucks required to develop the products necessary.
- The Entertainment Enthusiast: The ability to attend a concert, a show or a game in virtual reality is pretty attractive. If it is a real market, the question will it be big enough to pull a full industry?
3/ It’s too expensive for the user.
The price of a helmet is around $400 to $600. But to work properly you need to have a PC that cost more than $1000. The full package is clearly close to $2000. While some geeks will invest in the market, this price range keeps VR from producing mass-market products.
Running a sanity check on previous innovations such as 3D, Google Glass, Augmented Reality, adding the operational constraints of what virtual reality means for the consumer, and taking into consideration the technical challenges and the potential markets, generate many open questions that lead me to be sceptical about its future. While virtual reality has potential today for businesses and civil organisations, betting on it for the mass-market segment is a high risk venture in the short run. Nevertheless, with the evolution of the respective technologies, especially on the hardware side, Virtual Reality should be ready for mass market in 5 to 10 years. Will companies be patient enough to wait that long? For sure, Facebook will.
Thanks to Thierry Vazzoler for his inputs regarding the technical evaluation of the different solution.