2016 has been heralded by many as the Year of Virtual Reality but a slightly different description might be more accurate: The Year That People Start Talking About Virtual Reality.
Yes, a wave of virtual reality headsets just launched, but VR remains far from mainstream. Manufacturers would like you to believe otherwise, but the reality is that there are many challenges that must be addressed before VR technology truly becomes mainstream.
That’s not to say VR doesn’t have potential, of course. Just that the technology isn’t accessible enough right now for most people to use it, let alone use it effectively or practically or on a regular basis.
1. The Technology Is Out of Reach
Less than one percent of the 1.43 billion computers in the world have the graphical capabilities needed for VR, according to the research company Gartner. There are definitely high-end computers that are optimized for it, but they’re costly.
For example, Oculus recommends a video card at least as powerful as the NVIDIA GTX 970, and that alone costs about $280. That’s without even factoring in the rest of the computer’s components, which would add up to over a thousand dollars — not the mention the $599 price tag of the VR headset itself.
Virtual reality technology is also very bandwidth-intensive.
The need for upgraded hardware isn’t limited to just computers. As it prepares to release the PlayStation VR headset, Sony is working on an improved version of its PlayStation 4 gaming console that will boost graphics and power, presumably so it can handle VR more smoothly.
Similarly, Microsoft plans to release an upgraded version of its Xbox One console sometime in 2017, and the expectation is that the more powerful version will support 4K gaming and VR headsets like Oculus Rift.
None of this is to say that the technology doesn’t exist for an immersive VR experience. But for the most part, the tech has either yet to be released, is in early developmental stages, or simply beyond the budget of regular consumers.
2. Price Is Still a Problem
As it stands, virtual reality faces the same problem that all new and cool technologies experience: high prices.
This means that the majority of consumers remain “priced out” of the VR market, leaving it to early adopters, enthusiasts, and hardcore gamers. This will, of course, change over time as newer models become more powerful and cheaper to produce, but we aren’t there quite yet.
Take the Oculus Rift, for example. Electronics retailer Best Buy has a number of bundles for those looking to buy everything they need to run VR in one purchase. It’s a great idea, but these packages start with a hefty $1,499 price tag and top-level bundles cost more than $3,000.
The competing HTC Vive isn’t much different. The headset alone costs $799, although that does include extras such as two wireless controllers, two base stations, earbuds, and other accessories. Still, even if you drop that much on the VR headset, you still need an expensive VR-ready system.
On the console side, the PlayStation VR is expected to roll out in October at a retail price of $399.
For those who already own a PS4, Sony will also sell bundles at $499 that include the headset, a camera, two controllers, and a game. Also, the company hasn’t officially announced anything, but it’s expected to sell bundles of the PS4, a PlayStation VR headset, and a Sony TV, which would approach $1,000 or more.
3. The Health Effects Are Still Unknown
Maybe you’ve heard anecdotal evidence of how the VR experience can make someone feel off, whether it’s with a headache, queasiness, blurred vision, or a combination of all three.
The truth is, the long-term effects of VR are still unknown. Many side effects are thought to be only temporary, but long-term research studies are scarce so we don’t know for sure. VR manufacturers are aware of this, which is why they are quick to flood users with warnings to limit liability.
For example, Oculus Rift’s health and safety documentation lists the following as potential symptoms:
- Loss of awareness
- Eye strain
- Eye or muscle twitching
- Involuntary movements
- Altered, blurred, or double vision or other visual abnormalities
- Impaired balance
- Impaired hand-eye coordination
- Excessive sweating
- Increased salivation
- Discomfort or pain in the head or eyes
- Other symptoms similar to motion sickness
The company also suggests taking at least a 10- or 15-minute break for every 30 minutes of use, even if you don’t think you need it. It sounds sensible, but how many enthusiasts are really going to follow this advice when they’re busy experiencing the latest and greatest?
There is also evidence that VR can change how people think and behave in their day-to-day lives, due in part to the fact that it can be so realistic.
4. Getting Non-Gamers to Commit
For most gamers, VR is an easy sell. That doesn’t mean all of those convinced gamers already have VR headsets, but most of them are certainly excited to try or own VR technology themselves. It’s hard not to be excited for VR’s intense interactivity.
But what about all of the other people who don’t play games or are satisfied by simple mobile games on their phones? Investors in a host of fields, including real estate, entertainment and healthcare, are looking to invest in VR, but can the technology really take off among non-gamers?
The potential seems iffy, at best. The immersive nature of VR makes it a perfect fit for video games. It could also be used in another popular consumer medium: movies. But do most people need or want to feel more immersed in a movie than they already do with their large-screen TVs?
The education sector is already using VR technology, and it’s used to train people in a variety of industries as well. Yet, it seems the days when people use VR headsets at home for things other than gaming are still a long way off.
People are already extremely reluctant to adopt smart home automation. Virtual reality is on a completely different level, and it may be several years before the general population opens up to it.
5. The Lack of a Monetization Plan
Money drives just about every industry we know. If there is money to be made, investors will surely follow. There have already been plenty of investors in the VR market, but it could be some time before they begin to reap the rewards.
As recently as last summer, a number of venture capitalists said their investments in VR wouldn’t begin to pay off anytime soon.
One told the Wall Street Journal that it would be at least two to three years before companies begin making real money on VR, and that was an optimistic estimate.
Further, VR won’t become a reliable moneymaker until it hits the mainstream, and to do that it needs proper marketing.
With that being the case, those in charge of marketing VR technology face a variety of challenges as well, including dealing with bad press, helping people understand the promise of VR, and other issues that commonly plague new industries.
Will Virtual Reality Persevere?
It’s way too early to predict whether or not VR will make it, but one thing is clear: while it shows plenty of promise, we’ve still yet to experience The Year of Virtual Reality.
There is evidence that VR will succeed. The technology is new and unlike anything that most consumers have experienced, and as the technology becomes more common and inexpensive, consumer costs will go down.
Still, some are being cautious. Remember how badly the 3D smart TV failed even though it was so heavily hyped? That was an area in which both manufacturers and media companies invested heavily, yet it largely came away as a failure.
Why did it fail? Consumers didn’t want it. Or they didn’t feel they needed it. If VR can get over that significant hurdle, it will likely have plenty of glory years ahead. For now, VR has an uphill battle to fight.
What’s your opinion? Are you interested in owning a VR headset? Do you think the challenges will stall mainstream adoption? Tell us your opinions in the comments section below!