With the release of the Oculus Rift headset and additional systems on the way from Sony, Samsung, HTC, and many others, the virtual reality hype meter is currently off the charts. But I’m starting to worry that VR could turn out to be the second coming of Google Glass—at least in the short term.
Just like Google Glass, VR headsets are a super-cool technology with big questions about what exactly are we all supposed to do with it? I’m sure there are plenty of gamers salivating over ever more immersive hard-core gaming experiences, but is that really enough to push these spendy, awkward, glitchy, and still-evolving devices onto the heads of even early adopters, much less typical consumers?
(Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that while I have tried many high- and low-end VR headsets and played briefly with an Oculus Rift developers kit, I have yet to try the commercial version of the device. I did spend a fair amount of time wearing Google Glass, though seldom in public.)
Not fully formed
For one thing, just like the Google Glass represented a significant technology breakthrough that somehow wasn’t ready for prime time, the Oculus Rift also clearly advances the state of the art without being able to deliver a seamless experience. The Wall Street Journal described the grainy visual experience as “like looking through a screen door.” Not good.
Hard-core gamers may be willing to put up with that for access to immersive 3D worlds, but I suspect most people won’t. And even gamers are still waiting for “must-play” VR titles—not to mention better controllers. Set up, configuration, and troubleshooting also present challenges, according to early reviews.
There’s also a chicken and egg problem here. How many people will spend $1,500 on a full VR rig when there are only a few things to do or see with it? And how can content producers justify doing more than limited experiments with the new medium when there are only limited numbers of headsets out there on which to play this new content.
Some folks are predicting that business uses of VR will help jump-start the technology, but I have my doubts. I can see the advantages in industrial applications, but not so much in general business or enterprise settings. More to the point, will those commercial use cases be enough to push VR past the tipping into mainstream acceptance?
+ MORE OCULUS RIFT: 10 mind-blowing Oculus Rift experiments that reveal VR's practical potential +
Again, look at Google Glass, which has found a limited home in the enterprise after consumers largely rejected the “augmented reality” device. So far, though, that hasn’t been enough to spark a mainstream reassessment of Glass. And that’s being kind.
Let me be clear, I am not dissing virtual reality as a technology. Despite the failure of Glass, I still believe in the promise of the technology. Similarly, we’re still not yet at the point where the VR experience is good enough, cheap enough, and prevalent enough for the best content creators to devote the resources to creating the world-class games and interactive experiences for it that will drive consumer acceptance. I do believe we’ll get there, but we’re simply not as close as many people seem to think.
At the recent Game Developers Conference, for example, vendor interest was high, developers not so much. When developer interest skips ahead of the vendors, and it eventually will, then we’ll know we’re on the cusp of something big.
Alone together, virtually
Finally, VR faces a key non-tech hurdle—one that also relates to the travails of Google Glass. We don’t yet have a social context for it. While you can play VR games online with others, the devices are profoundly isolating in person. Players can’t see the real world around them, and other folks in the room can’t easily share in the experience. If VR headsets aren’t fun to use in a group, their market will be severely limited. Social factors played a huge role in the flop of Google Glass, and they’re likely to affect the adoption curve of VR as well.
My only concern is that shortcomings in the initial implementation of VR will dampen consumer enthusiasm for the concept, the way that Google Glass soured consumers on technology they’d never even experienced.