Geeking with Greg: When will virtual reality take off? The $100 bet.


The bet in question is when VR will sell more than 10 million units in a single year. That's the definition of "take off" in this context. As a guy who was writing "VR is here!" in 2012, it's a little bit wild to me that, at the close of 2020, we're still having this argument about whether VR is successful: I've spent about $1000 over the past 5 years on three different headsets (PSVR - $400, Oculus Go - $200, Oculus Quest 1 - $400) and I've had incredible experiences with all three. Farpoint, Doom VFR, and Skyrim VR on PSVR were incredible experiences, the Oculus Go gave me Darknet, BigScreen, and Virtual Virtual Reality, and the Quest has changed my life during the COVID-19 shutdown: Beat Saber, Pistol Whip, and Synth Riders have become a way to stay active even when I'm spending more time indoors, and games like Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners give me an immersive world to explore with a nice narrative. If VR disappeared off the face of the earth today, I'd call the whole endeavor a success. I've thoroughly enjoyed my time in VR.

So it's interesting to me that in the most technical online forum I frequent, there's this air of doubt about the whole thing. All kinds of arguments are brought out: VR offers nothing new, it's not immersive, most people don't need it, and that it's taking too long to have an 'iPhone moment'.

That last one gave me pause. How many technologies ever have an 'iPhone moment'? I'm not sure exactly what that means, but if the bar for "taking off" is that every adult goes out and buys one, I fear most technologies never have an 'iPhone moment'. Here's the thing: the iPhone wasn't revolutionary. It brought a bunch of really new and cool stuff to a device that everyone already owned: the cell phone. So consumers were already on a treadmill of upgrading their cell phone very few years, and when the time was up on their current model, they had an option to get an iPhone. The cost factor was mitigated by a built-in financing system offered by cell carriers (adding monthly charges to an existing bill that cover device cost). It's a good device in many ways, so it sold well. This is a crazy bar to set for most other technologies, especially those that have no immediate precursor.

VR has exactly that issue: no one owns "some other headset" that they'll replace with a VR headset. It's a totally new activity, is often perceived as extremely expensive, and is often associated with a dedicated room and lots of auxiliary equipment like beacons set up around the room. All this has changed now that inside-out tracking is developed, and costs have dropped 10x in the past few years.

Is there anything else that was like this? It reminded me a little bit of how my family reacted when my dad bought a Kaypro II CP/M machine in 1984. No one knew what it was good for, even though it did a few neat things. So I looked back at the sales of PCs through the 80s in Ars Technica's 2005 retrospective on computing. In 1984, Apple sold about a million units, and it decreased from there, selling only about 350,000 units by 1987. Even the juggernaut, IBM PC clones, sold 6 million units in 1987, growing from 2 million units in 1984. It wasn't until 1988 that all PCs clones combined surpassed 10 million units shipped per year, largely driven by business, and the fact that all the different models were largely compatible with each other (the origin of the term "IBM compatible"!) allowing competition to thrive.

After reading and thinking about that, my takeaways are:

  1. Disruptive products can take a long time to go cross the 10 million units / year threshold. PCs changed the landscape of...everything, and still took more than 10 years to cross that threshold.
  2. Business sales drove much of the PC market growth. This is not true for VR, and it may be slowing the growth of the platform.
  3. Compatibility between different models was critical to the PC's success, but VR has been balkanized with different models with differing capabilities that are often tied to stores for each model (Steam, Oculus, Windows, etc.)

I disagree with how Greg cast this:

So what went wrong? Looking back at VR hype in 2016, there were a lot of reasons to be optimistic..

But do I think there are milestones that VR needs to cross before it can become more mainstream. There need to be multiple cheap standalone models that users can choose from without losing a library of apps they've invested in. Proprietary app stores are now absolutely entrenched (for better or for worse), so I expect the way to approach this is for vendors to incentivize cross-buy. It may be a small hit to store exclusives, but given that we're concerned about the growth of the VR platform as a whole, this may be a case where if vendors incentivize cross-buy, they'll end up getting a slightly smaller portion of a much larger pie.

VR also needs to get higher resolution displays (this is happening) so reading text in VR is natural and easy. This will allow more business uses, particularly in a pandemic-stricken world. We have some apps that do this, but unfortunately most are not yet better than their real-world equivalent in terms of convenience, and cross-platform support is lacking. I use Linux almost entirely, with the exception of a Mac I have for work, and Virtual Desktop, which is what I would normally have bought in a heartbeat, only supports Windows. This makes perfect sense, as it's a single-developer project and Windows has more business use than other platforms, but as long as reading text is a challenge, business use will still be a tough sell.

In the meantime, I'll continue using my headsets daily and enjoying the remarkable experiences they bring.

Geeking with Greg: When will virtual reality take off? The $100 bet.