The Future of Virtual Reality… A Fad That’ll Fizzle Out, or The Next Big Consumer Tech?Reading Time: 10 minutes
(Note: This post is a little more consumer tech focused than marketing specific, as it lays the groundwork for an up-coming piece which will discuss the possibilities of VR in marketing).
VR is a hot topic at the moment:
- Oculus are starting to ship their first consumer release (CV1), having battled a slight pushback over their pre-order pricing (by @riptari)
- HTC Vive set to start shipping imminently, backed by Steam.
- A plethora of VR tech from new virtual reality startups, stating that are expecting to ship products in 2016, such as offerings from Virtuix, Tesla suit, Infinadeck and Cyberith Virtualizer.
But what about the future of virtual reality? Didn’t it promise to amaze back in the 80’s & 90’s, only to fail miserably?, will it fizzle out again?
Even if VR is here to stay, will it ever have a broad enough reach become a useful tool for marketers, or have an impact on retail strategies?
First, lets look at the reasons why some feel VR may fizzle out, then consider some opposing arguments (who doesn’t love a good debate!).
The Future Of Virtual Reality: Why VR May Fizzle Out
1 – Cost of Technology
For a long time, leading VR brand Oculus has stated that one of it’s core aims is for VR to be affordable. So much so, that in an interview with Eurogamer (by @Clert), back in 2014, Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR, stated:
“We want to stay in that $200-$400 price range,” he states. “That could slide in either direction depending on scale, pre-orders, the components we end up using, business negotiations…”
“Whatever it is,” Luckey adds, “it’s going to be as cheap as possible.” Mitchell nods: “That’s really the goal.”
However, as is often the case with early-stage start-up’s plans, the end-cost was considerably higher, with the pre-orders costing $599 before tax & not including shipping, causing a degree of controversy with Oculus fans.
Oculus also recently increased the minimum recommended spec for powering the CV1, meaning a PC capable of running the rift smoothly, will likely be slightly higher than expected.
With many other VR products yet to ship, will the final price of most VR tech end up being higher than estimated, potentially lowering the initial uptake of the tech & ultimately resulting in VR failing to reach the critical mass needed to achieve mass market success?
2 – VR Flopped & Failed in The 80s & 90’s And Will Do So Again, It’s Just Too Niche.
Some also feel that, regardless of cost, VR will fail to enter the mainstream, just as it did back in the 80s & 90s.
Virtual Boy’s Virtual Failure
Back in 1995, for example, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy previewed by the New York Times in November 1994, with an official press release from Nintendo the next day stating that the Virtual Boy would “totally immerse players into their own private universe.”…
Yet, despite the mainstream press coverage from the NYT and Nintendo’s expectations, even with several price-drops, by 1996 the Virtual Boy ceased production.
Does this mean that the current surge in popularity of Virtual Reality is likely to fizzle-out in the same way?
3 – VR Sickness
It’s often said that one of the biggest obstacles to VR hitting the mainstream is the issue with VR sickness. The symptoms of VR sickness are not pretty, reading like a list of travel sickness symptoms; nausea, dizziness, disorientation, ‘upset’ stomach, and a feeling you may vomit. To make matters worse, these feelings can last for some time after a VR experience, too.
Could these effects be strong enough to put people off using VR? If they are not resolved by the industry; quite possibly.
For example, back in 1987, a paper was published on to Pubmed highlighting the issues of the effects that ‘simulator sickness’ (not VR sickness, but potentially very similar) may have on Army aviation pilots, with concerns that the nausea felt may actually put pilots off practicing on the simulators.
Okay, enough doom & Gloom! What about the positives?
The Future Of Virtual Reality: Reasons VR May Go Mainstream This Time
1 –Overcoming Problems With VR Costs
Due to economies of scale, as VR becomes more popular, it’s likely the cost of production will come down. This doesn’t always translate to a lower priced entry point for consumers, however as Oculus have stated their goal is to keep their products as affordable as possible, it’s likely that, in this case at least, lower production costs will trickle-down to cheaper products for the end-consumer.
“Much like smartphones, the cost of that quality is going to come down over time–you can buy unsubsidized phones for less than $100 that blow away the best $600 phones from just five years ago; that is what time does to the cost of technology.”
So long as there are enough early adopters to drive the initial push of VR, production costs will come down, leading to a lower price-point, making the devices more affordable.
“I can’t talk about numbers, but we sold through in 10 minutes what I thought we were going to sell through in a few hours, which is one of the reasons the site was beginning to buckle.”
2 – Why VR Might Not Fail Like in The 80’s & 90’s
Okay, so VR failed in the 80’s and 90’s, true. However, despite the fact that there’s a similarity in regards to the aesthetics of VR (that fat lump of plastic that appears to be glued to the heads of those folks waving their arms around in YouTube videos), in most ways, that’s where the similarity ends.
- Ridiculously higher resolution, making for a much-improved experience (to say the least!)
- Head-tracking technology (most ‘old’ VR tech had no head-tracking tech, though as Sophie mentions in her post, some Virtuality models had magnetic head-tracking, as well as a magnetically tracked controller)
- Reports of eye-strain & possible eye damage on the old tech
- Obviously, the graphical quality back then was much lower.
To get an idea of the difference between VR back in the 90’s and what’s possible now, I’d recommend taking a look at these two videos:
Virtual Reality In The Past:
Virtual Reality Now:
Greater Availability of Virtual Reality Compatible Technology
Aside from the actual quality of the experience, the number of households that had the tech capable of running virtual reality technology back in the 80’s & 90’s meant home VR was unlikely to be popular. With the new round of VR equipment, however, most decent spec gaming PCs are capable of providing a VR experience.
It’s also worth mentioning at this point, that a PC isn’t even needed for a pretty immersive VR experience. Costing around £80/$99, Samsung’s Gear VR is capable of providing an impressive VR experience when combined with a compatible smartphone (Samsung S7, S& edge, S6, S6 edge or Note 5 – depending on the model of Gear VR). This makes VR so much more accessible for the average consumer, in comparison to the tech of the 80s & 90s.
If £80 isn’t a cheap enough entry point, those wanting to ‘dip their toe’ in VR can purchase a Cardboard VR kit, such as Google Cardboard, for around £10/$13 (Amazon). The quality and level of immersion with the (much cheaper) Google Cardboard is likely to be lower, which is to be expected at the price. Still, it’s a great low-cost introduction to VR.
Larger Gaming Industry
Gamers are the most obvious early adopters of VR and, whilst gaming has enjoyed popularity for a long time, if you compare the gaming industry of the 80’s & 90’s to the present day, the difference is huge. The US video gaming industry was worth around $4.7bn in 1990, compared with around $22bn in 2015. In fact, it’s predicted that VR gaming alone will generate $5.1bn in 2016 (by @JohnGaudiosi). As a side-note, for those interested in virtual reality video games, check this list on Steam.
Broader Than Gaming
For some VR skeptics, however, it’s likely that neither the improved & more immersive experiences that VR now offers, nor the affordability of the technology, are enough to convince them of the likely success of VR. If that’s the case, it may be worth remembering that one of the main VR brands, Oculus, was purchased by Facebook back in 2014 for $2bn.
Facebook already shows 360 degree videos (360 degree videos look much better in VR!), and this is just the start.
In his Facebook post about the Oculus deal, Mark Zuckerberg stated:
“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court-side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
As you can read above, Facebook are serious about the growth of VR and it’s use outside of gaming. With 1.55bn active users, Facebook may just have the clout to influence consumer’s engagement of VR. Who knows, maybe eventually we’ll be able to stand ‘face-to-face’ in a room, or by using one of the plethora of up-coming VR tech innovations (such as the Virtuix Omni), go for a walk through a forest with someone, who’s there in your virtual world, yet in reality is on the other side of the planet.
Facebook aren’t the only large brand who’re pushing VR either, with the HTC Vive and Playstation VR also set for public release, 2016 is set to be a busy year for VR.
Brands Committing to VR
Many leading consumer brands have also started to show their commitment towards Virtual Reality, just a few examples:
- Google have also announced their ambition for VR, with their daydream VR strategy (by @nicole)
- Audi’s next-gen showrooms being pwered by VR (by @muterobert)
- eBay launching the world’s first VR Department store (by @reillystyley)
3 – Overcoming VR Sickness
Although as explained earlier, VR sickness is very real, there are already several ways that this can be avoided, or at least minimised. To understand this, we need to look at some of the most common causes of VR sickness, then how they can be overcome.
- Low FPS (Frames Per Second)
A low FPS (the number of frames shown per second) can have a marked impact on VR sickness.
Having a stable, high FPS can be achieved both by consumers using hardware that’s up to the task (Oculus have published a minimum recommended spec for PCs), and developers optimizing their code. Roadtovr.com reports Oculus as saying code should run at a minimum 60 FPS to avoid nausea. Gaming engine company, Unity, have published a guide on optimizing games for VR (mobile phone based VR headset), which can help.
- Reducing The Disconnect Between VR Movement & Real-World Motion & Expectations
When using a VR headset, like the Oculus Rift, your head is tracked and this information is used in-game (or in-experience). Done right, this results in an amazing level of immersion. Handled wrongly, however, and users can experience quite intense nausea.
The user should always have control over where their character is looking. Even in cut-scenes, which traditionally have ‘guided’ the ‘watcher’ around the scene as it plays out. Do this in VR games at your (or VR user’s) peril!
Additionally, speed of character movement in-game (or in-experience) is an issue. Think of a game like ‘Call of Duty’. In-game your character can go from standstill to running at something like 7 meters per second (or 24kph) pretty much instantly, this may cause increased nausea due to your brain not expecting your body to run at those kind of speeds so suddenly. So, by keeping a character’s speed a little closer to real life, as well as trying to make movement more realistic, nausea may be reduced.
Similarly, planning other movement, such as head turns and strafing can also be crucial. Some movements are less nausea inducing when done slowly, whereas others are best performed faster. Practice and testing is key here, to work out what strategies create less nausea for users.
- HTC Vive, Full Room Tracking, and VR Sickness Reduction
Valve claims that 0% of people get sick using the VR headset they created with HTC, the THC Vive. Valve stated that their ‘Lighthouse’ position tracking system is the key. As research reveals – and as pointed out by a commenter below, Krik, many people do seem to notice improvements when using Vive’s 1-to-1 room scale positional tracking.
Essentially, the Lighthouse system floods a room with light (invisible to the human eye), then acts as a reference for tracking devices on the Vive HMD and controllers. This results in your VR experience being much closer to what your brain would expect to be experiencing, which, it seems, reduces nausea significantly. However some people still report nausea on the HTC Vive, though this may be in part down to the game design.
For those interested in the Lighthouse system, this post on Gizmodo has a more detail explanation.
- VR Accessories That Increase Immersion May Reduce Nausea
As already mentioned, the current explosion in popularity of VR is powering growth of VR accessories and related tech. Many of these accessories focus on increasing immersion in the virtual world, as full immersion virtual reality in the holy grail of VR.
Solutions that replace traditional ‘thumbstick’ game controllers, instead allowing you to control your ‘virtual self’ by, say, walking or running on a treadmill in real life (such as the Wizdish or Virtuix Omni), reduce the disparity between your body’s real-world physical movement and that of your VR ‘character’. Just as with controlling speed in VR, this can lessen instances of nausea. The basic rule for both instances, is that the closer your VR experience is to real life, the less your brain gets confused, so the less likely you are to feel sick.
In my opinion, Virtual Reality has a strong future in certain industries, gaming being an obvious example.
There’s no arguing that there are challenges to be overcome if VR is going to expand beyond the gaming sector, but with support from giants such as Facebook, Sony & HTC, along with early adoption from leading brands like Audi & eBay, I doubt those issues will be around for long.
In addition, let’s not forget that brands continually strive to find creative ways to engage consumers, sculpt brand perception & make emotional connections with their target audience. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see a surge in both VR use in experiential marketing and free ‘Google Cardboard’ VR headsets, with branded experiences being given out for free. In fact, it is – already – happening.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Steve Brennen, eBay’s senior director of marketing and retail innovation, talking about eBay’s new VR department store:
“We believe the next channel for retail will be virtual,”
“We don’t build gimmicks…If retailers in the future are going to have an omni-channel strategy, it will include retailing [in] a virtual world.”
What do you think?
Will Virtual Reality continue to grow in popularity, becoming as ubiquitous as smartphones, or will it fizzle out and become the Fondue set of the present day, destined to languish in the corner of a cupboard? Comment below…
For those interested in VR, check out the VR World Congress that happens in the UK each year. I attended this year’s event and can definitely recommend it!