The absolute future of virtual reality and augmented reality is a hotly debatable subject – some say they’re destined to fail in the mainstream market, others say we’ll all be watching augmented reality television in the next few years. It’s all speculation, of course – that’s the beauty of a technology with as many possibilities as the VR / AR scene. In this article, we’ll think on how and when VR / AR technology could make a major breakthrough in the mainstream to become the most popular entertainment technology.
For starters, let's examine why VR / AR currently isn’t the most popular mainstream entertainment technology.
- Cost-Prohibitive Barrier to Entry – With VR headsets being in the $600+ range, and the hardware required to use them (a high-end premium phone or powerful PC), its obvious that VR headsets are luxury items. Consider that the average 32” Smart TV is less than $300, and its even more obvious why VR headsets haven’t become a staple of the family living room.
- Mainstream Budget VR Headsets Are Just That – Yes, there are cheap VR headsets. The Samsung Gear VR is around $129. But this is basically strapping a cellphone in front of your face – it’s not the truly immersive VR experience that you get from the premium end of things, and thus, while its VR “for the mainstream”, it’s a watered down and overall poor representation of what VR can or should be. That’s not to say in budget VR aren’t enjoyable, they definitely are but it’s far away from the experience that you’ll have with the Helmet VR.
- A Lack of Mainstream Hollywood VR Content – There has been a VR app explosion overall, yes. We can watch YouTube VR, Netflix VR, but as stated above, this is just watching content with a cell phone strapped to your head. There are currently no major motion picture studios creating content exclusively for VR on a mainstream level. The intricacies of filming a movie with head-tracking for the viewer aren’t impossible, it has been done, but it’s a massive risk to fund on an AAA level.
- Lack of multi-user experience. While VR is still evolving, it is hard for people who already own a headset to truly share their experience with others. There are only a few multi-user gaming communities that allow users to equally share the same environment with different controllers (e.g. Elite: Dangerous or EVE Online) simply because it doesn’t hurt the in-game balance. Some others are only waiting to be launched to dramatically boost user experience along with physical health benefits (World of WarCraft). First-person shooters are of a different story unless all your opponents use the same kind of equipment. Until then, if you are not a fan of space or fantasy operas, Wii-like multiplayer games will remain your main source of VR experience. Fortunately, even the simplest need only minor modifications to suit well in the VR realm. And some indie projects (e.g. Inside, Little Nightmares) might gain a whole new set of experiences.
So, putting all those things together, what we have is a that is still in its infancy stage, trying to find a balance between mainstream cost-effective without being a passing novelty. This is fairly difficult to accomplish, and VR just may get stuck in this cycle of watering itself down to be more wallet-friendly.
Is it as bad as it sounds?
This isn’t all doom-and-gloom though. Its said that technology gets cheaper over time – this is especially true in the computer hardware market, where graphics cards and CPUs get price-slashed every couple of years as newer versions roll out. The premium side of VR / AR technology could become cheaper over time, and today’s $600 Oculus Rift could be price-slashed when something else comes out.
The problem here is that nothing is really pushing the premium VR / AR headset market besides potential. New graphics card and CPU technology are constantly being developed because of consumer demand for technological improvements in the gaming industry. But even still, the latest and best graphics cards are a luxury – most PC gamers are okay with last year’s technology, because it can run this year’s games on high graphics settings – not the maximum settings, but good enough.
VR headsets on the other hand, they aren’t being released in new models every few months. There’s no reason for prices to drop on the current models, except to try and make them more accessible. Because as you’re reading this, you might be thinking “hey, Oculus Rift dropped half its price a year after launch!”. Yes, because they realized the barrier to entry was too high. In fact, it’s been speculated that Facebook is now selling the Oculus Rift at revenue loss prices.
What’s the long-term strategy for VR / AR?
Here’s where things get interesting; if Facebook is selling the Oculus Rift at revenue loss prices, it may not be such a bad thing – Facebook could be playing a long game. Let’s remember that Facebook is a multi-billion-dollar company and can afford to sink money into VR. Any revenue loss from selling Oculus Rift at half of launching price is completely negligible to Facebook’s pockets.
What isn’t negligible is the potential returns if VR becomes truly mainstream. By selling premium technology at a reduced price, Facebook could potentially build a massive VR ecosystem that makes them the king of the VR industry:
"But I don't think there really is a strategy to pull this in from 10 years to five. I just think it's going to be a 10-year thing. The analogy I always use is, the first smartphones came out in 2003. The BlackBerry and Palm Treo, and it took 10 years to get to a billion units. I don't know if there was something folks could have done to make that happen fast. But I think that was pretty good. And if we can be on a similar trajectory of anywhere near 10 years for VR and AR, I would feel very good about that....
"I would ask for the patience of the investor community in doing that, because we're going to invest a lot in this and it's not going to return or be really profitable for us for quite a while."
So, to answer this article headline’s original question, when will AR / VR become the most popular entertainment technology? Well if we believe Mark Zuckerberg, it could be in the next 10 years. This is going to largely depend on whether or not shareholders will continue supporting Zuckerberg’s vision, and how many other VR / AR developers are going to crop up with competitive hardware, and, this is a really big one, whether or not VR /AR content creators are going to be able to deliver what the mainstream really wants.