Can VR make the jump from oddity to mainstream? I'm having doubts

Hurdles remain before the tech crosses over to the mass population

Virtual Reality bummer
Steve Sauer/IDG

In virtual reality’s latest iteration, it’s clear that 2016 and the first part of 2017 (based on the number of companies and products displaying at CES) is seeing the beginnings of mainstream interest in the concept.

But after having tried several different VR headsets and offerings, I’m starting to have doubts about whether the technology can make the jump from a niche audience and market (mainly gamers) into the larger space held by the rest of the world. The rest of this year (and possibly 2018) could determine whether VR becomes as prevalent as the smartphone, or whether it becomes another gadget that gets placed in the recycling bin labeled “fads.”

I’m not here to bash VR or to declare it dead – there is some great technology here and the experiences with some of these headsets are awesome. VR has come a long way since it was a fad in the 1990s. But hurdles remain, and I’m not sure whether consumers are willing to wait for those hurdles to be addressed (because consumers are so fickle when it comes to new technology). In no particular order, then, here are some of the issues:

Waiting for the killer app / content

Most of the content I’ve experienced so far has been video games that put you into a VR environment – space battles, roller coaster rides, horror movie dark rooms. They’re fun to experience, but all of these can be similarly experienced with a dark room and a giant TV screen. There hasn’t yet been a game designed strictly for VR, one that says, “I have to go buy this now!”. Even Sony’s big VR launch last year with all its games has yet to generate a lot of excitement. The biggest game I was looking forward to – Star Trek: Bridge Crew – has been delayed to March 14, 2017.

There is some hope, however – at CES 2017 I was able to experience a demo of Rock Band with a VR headset (Oculus Touch) connected to a Dell Alienware system – the game was fun, and it was fun to move around with the headset and guitar controller. Harmonix, maker of the game, said it will be available on the Oculus Rift on March 23 – Amazon has a $70 bundle for the game and a guitar controller. Now I just need to either buy one of those headsets or pray that they do a PSVR version.


Uncomfortable, heavy headsets

This is probably the biggest issue that many people have with VR in its current state. With all of the headsets I’ve seen and experienced (at least in the mid-range and high-end, smartphone-based VR doesn’t count here), there are a lot of wires. Wires that send video signal to the attached computer or console, power cables and audio cables all contribute to a bundle of extra weight. The headsets themselves are heavy units, which weigh down on the head to create an uncomfortable fit on the head and ears.

It’s no wonder that many of the VR vendors at CES this year were talking about wireless connectivity. Networking vendors are touting 802.11ad (60 GHz frequency) technology as a useful tech for VR – the high-speed, short range technology might be what VR vendors are looking for. Until those come out, we’re stuck with bulky devices that you eventually get tired of wearing.

Bad eyes? Don’t apply

VR requires that the image inside the headset is crisp and clear, which means you need good eyesight in order to have a good experience. With an adult population that wears glasses (75% use some form of vision correction, and 64% of those wear glasses, according to the Vision Council of America), VR headset designers need to either accommodate users that have glasses, or use some kind of focal correction so users can see clearly when they’re not wearing glasses.

So far, mixed results in this area. Headsets are more comfortable when you’re not wearing glasses – less things needed to pinch your nose or ears. But that requires lenses that can be focused with dials and settings and that can be difficult to accomplish.  Big headsets that let you leave your glasses on can take away some of the immersive experience and become bulkier.

Other small hurdles

If you’re using a VR system that’s tied down with wires, you have a limited space in how you move around. Some of the games/apps let you move a bit, but because you’re wearing a headset that doesn’t let in a lot of light, you can’t go walking around without the fear of bumping into something. Maybe someday we’ll all have rooms like the Star Trek holodeck where we can walk around and not bump into things, but for the moment you have to make sure you’re not slamming your knee into a coffee table.

Another issue is how these look – they’re big and bulky and make you look goofy – not something that a lot of people want to be wearing when they’re out and about. Even if you’re on an airplane in a confined space, I think many people don’t want to be wearing this all of the time. When was the last time you saw someone walking around with a Bluetooth headset on their ears?

Pico Neo CV VR headset Pico Technology Co.

Some positives on the VR front

All is not lost, however. At CES this year, I did see a lot of different ideas in the VR space that could mean more hope for the technology. The Pico Neo CV headset, for example, is a lightweight, stand-alone (and untethered) VR headset that also uses a tracking kit to give users the “6 Degrees of Freedom” to let you move around a bit more (as long as you’ve moved that coffee table). Optics leader ZEISS was showing off its VR ONE Plus VR headset, designed to accommodate Android or iOS smartphones but with its expertise in the optics space for better viewing inside the headset. The company was also working on a demo that could provide an immersive walking experience – normally only seen on higher-end VR devices – for smartphone VR users.

On the larger scale front, companies like NineD and Innosimulation were showing off giant chairs and immersive platforms that integrate with VR headsets to provide better motion experiences. The Innovr Throne, for example, is a chair that rolls, pitches and heaves to match motion in the headset. Like the motion seen at the Six Flags VR roller coaster experience, a user wearing a headset and then moving in a seat will be less likely to get motion sickness. I’d expect to see devices like these in consumer-friendly locations at entertainment centers (movie theaters, malls, arcades, etc.), showing off VR’s potential rather than something that you’re going to want in your home.

On the business front, there’s a lot of excitement from companies that have customer-facing experiences – you’ll likely see experiments in retail, health care and field service workers, similar to what happened (or what might happen) in the augmented reality (AR) markets. There are some other interesting aspects of using VR in a regular business (knowledge workers in their office cubicles won’t likely need a VR headset any time soon), but I have heard about some interesting network performance VR scenarios (having IT managers donning a headset to view their network in a virtual space).

Whether this technology takes off or becomes a fad will depend on how quickly the industry can solve those major hurdles, and consumers’ willingness to wait for better (and less expensive) systems to come along. If they can’t address those, I’m afraid fickle users will move onto the next big shiny thing.

Related Video

In this week’s Mingis on Tech podcast (courtesy of Computerworld), special guest me talks about these VR issues:

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