Virtual reality (VR) has been an available and developing technology for many years now, and tech analysts have continually insisted that it’s about to be a “game changer.” But today, years after the first major generations of VR headsets entered the world, VR remains a bit of a novelty. Most households in the United States don’t own a VR headset, and VR content remains (mostly) limited to video games.
That said, sales of VR headsets are increasing, and there are a greater number of VR options emerging on the market. Additionally, more companies, organizations, and individuals are expressing interest in using VR for other applications. The question is, how long before VR is commonplace?
First, let’s clarify what it would take to be “commonplace.” There are currently something like 126 million households in the United States, and nearly 121 million households with at least one TV. TVs are featured in the vast majority of U.S. households, with less than 5 percent of households not having a TV. By contrast, the number of VR headsets sold is barely in the tens of millions worldwide.
To get to “commonplace,” we wouldn’t necessarily have to have VR headset ownership be the norm, but it would certainly need to grow. If even a third of U.S. households had access to a VR headset, it would be seen as something normal, rather than something novel, and most people would either have one or know someone who does.
Industries for Development
Currently, VR is mostly reserved for gaming purposes. Most of the individual consumers who own VR headsets are using them for video games primarily, while dabbling in other applications, like watching videos or touring new locations.
For VR to “catch on,” it first has to serve a wider potential customer base. It can’t be seen as just a fancy version of a video game console, or non-gamers aren’t going to pay attention to it and gamers are only going to buy it if they have the money.
Fortunately, we’re seeing major developments here. For example, 360-degree and VR presentations are starting to become the new norm for architects, engineers, and designers working in 3-dimensional space. It’s incredibly difficult to show someone a property, or a prospective building, using only 2D screens. VR gives them the opportunity to get a closer look—and it grants them a unique, memorable experience at the same time.
In the healthcare world, VR has the potential to revolutionize both physical examinations and physical therapy. Doctors and surgeons can livestream surgeries in VR as an educational tool, and patients can gain access to more in-depth remote care.
Of course, marketing and advertising companies have also started leveraging the power of VR (and by extension, augmented reality, or AR). With full 360-degree landscapes, companies and individuals can tell much more immersive, interesting stories—and introduce their customers to new concepts at the same time.
What’s Holding VR Back?
We’re starting to see VR emerge as a tool in more industries, but that alone isn’t going to help VR overcome the obstacles ahead of it. Why is it, exactly, that VR hasn’t yet become commonplace? What are the factors holding it back?
- Cost. First and foremost, we have to think about the cost. This is one of the biggest hang-ups for consumers who don’t currently have a headset, and for justifiable reasons. Many of the high-end headsets on the market are several hundred to a thousand dollars by themselves. On top of that, if you want the best experience, you’ll need to invest in a heavy-duty gaming PC capable of rending the complex graphical worlds you’re about to explore. An out-of-the-box PC that can handle this demanding load is easily over a thousand dollars, possibly running into multiple thousands of dollars. You could also build a PC on your own for less than $1,000, but this isn’t something everyone is capable of (or comfortable doing). There are some cheaper options available, but as we’ll see, they may be doing more harm than good.
- Technical optimization. Getting into VR isn’t quite like building your own robot, but you will need some technical knowledge to get involved. Setting up a VR headset with a new PC is more complicated and potentially more frustrating than, say, setting up a new TV. If you have limited technical experience, or if you aren’t good with computers, you’re not going to be interested in dealing with the headache. Additionally, troubleshooting can be a nightmare.
- VR knockoffs. We also need to address the number of VR “knockoffs” and low-quality versions on the market. There are companies selling devices that merely strap a smartphone to your face, and low-quality headsets that provide little more than a digital screen. The best VR experiences today offer high definition, incredibly high refresh rates, stereoscopic vision, immersive 360-degree audio, and full finger tracking—inferior systems don’t hold a candle to them. That said, these inferior headsets are cheaper, so people are buying them. After using them once or twice, they decide VR “isn’t that impressive” based on a false impression, and commit to never buying an expensive headset.
- Headset bulk. Even if you love VR, you probably don’t like wearing the headset. Even the sleekest models in the modern era have the tendency to weigh down the front of your face, obstruct your vision, and generally make you feel like a doofus. It’s hard to pack the technology into a form that’s both convenient and comfortable, so this remains a major hurdle.
- Nausea. Some users can’t escape the feeling of nausea or discomfort when they attempt to move around in a 3D virtual environment. The human brain is used to a feedback loop; when your vision changes as you move, you expect to feel your body move. When your body is stationary but you see natural movement, it results in a discrepancy.
- Lackluster content. New technologies are often bolstered by the emergence of new pieces of content that make the most of them. While there have been some marginally successful VR games and experiences, there haven’t been any landmark developments that make people feel like VR is a must-try.
- Speculation on future generations. Some people love the idea of VR, but are holding back because they feel that future generations are going to offer something much better—better-class visuals with a more comfortable headset at a lower price. It’s hard to blame them.
Promising New Headsets
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a diversity of different headsets emerging, including more expensive, more impressive high-end models, and products designed with comfort and mobility in mind. As we see more companies enter the space, we’ll see a wider variety of options—which is only going to be a good thing for consumers looking to enter the VR space.
Why Do We Care?
So why do we even care about the adoption of VR? There’s the promise of a better experience, both as a customer and as a content consumer, but more importantly, more access to VR means greater demand for VR content. It’s a feedback loop that encourages more people to invest in VR headsets, and more movie studios, gaming studios, and companies from various industries to invest in VR content. Together, these forces could redefine how we see and experience the world, all for the better.
The Bottom Line
So what’s the bottom line here? How long before VR is commonplace?
VR has a lot of obstacles that it still needs to overcome before it can become a household staple. That said, there are promising new developments—both in how VR content is being created and the types of headsets available. Look for a slow growth curve to emerge over the next several years to the next few decades.