Virtual Reality isn’t functional yet, here is why
Let me start this post by saying that I'm a real believer. Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology that will disrupt how we live our lives. The problem is, it's not there yet.
The short answer is that the usefulness of the content (benefits) vs. the accessibility of the technology (cost) isn't there yet. Let us walk through the VR value chain and analyze each part.
There is some fantastic VR content out there, but it's not the norm. There are three main problems with VR content. The first one is common. When a new medium comes around, content transposition is usual.
Sound films that felt like Silent movies. 3D movies that felt like 2D. Blogs that felt like PDFs and now, VR content that looks 2D. The problem is, most of the VR content falls under this category. It's so prevalent Oculus announced not long ago that they'd start refunding users for bad content.
The second issue is the lack of VR developers. There are two sides to what we now call Virtual Reality. On the one hand, we have what's called 360º experiences. This would fall into movies with 360 degrees of freedom. The producers record the content with 360º dedicated cameras. The footage is then "stitched" together to create an immersive experience. On the other hand, you have CGI based material. Experiences created entirely with Unity, Unreal,
While development for VR might look similar, it's not the same. 360º experiences allow for multiple storylines. Content needs to be "stitched," directors require expensive hardware too. The same applies to CGI-based content. The possibilities of the medium make it different.
New tools are being developed to use VR space to design 3D content. I think that's the way to go, and so far, the learning curve is less steep than the traditional hardcore Unity developer. That said, there are still in their infancy.
The truth is, great VR developers are scarce, just like good AI experts. It's hard to teach someone, and the return on the investment is dubious. VR sales aren't there. Some studios are even cutting down on VR investments. So it's hard to predict if getting into VR is a good or bad investment, putting a break into getting more people in the field.
The third difficulty with VR content is what I called usefulness. For the industry to take off, there needs to be a clear set of benefits. Most of the people with CGI expertise come from the entertainment industry (Game studios + Moviemakers). This is one of the reasons why the content is heavily tilted towards the entertainment sector.
This bias towards entertainment already narrows and corners VR's usefulness. If you compare the benefits VR entertainment offers versus the ease of use, we can see, we're not there yet.
VR entertainment, let it be games or VR movies like Melita (Disclaimer: I know the makers), is mind-blowing. The question is, is the experience so good that it offsets the cost of having it? The price isn't just economical, but the cost of setting the system. The more devices/sensors, the more time it requires to setup, the more expensive it is for the user. Time is money.
The most cost-effective devices (smartphone powered headsets) aren't costly ($10 – $150), but they deliver a poor substitute for a movie or game in 2D.
The mid-range devices are way more expensive ($350 – $500), and they depend upon, not only the headset but also external controllers. On top of that, the experiences, while being better, aren't astounding. At least not enough to make people come in droves.
Top of the line gadgets can easily hit the $1000 mark, demand external controllers, external cameras, and a dedicated gaming PC device. The delivered experiences are astonishing, but it's a steep price and setting.
Sony's PlayStation VR is an excellent example of this last case. They had a fabulous opportunity to put VR in every home. They botched it. The PSVR requires so many pieces; it's cumbersome. While Sony boasted their 915.000 units sold in February, it seems once the initial fever washed away, they aren't selling at the expected speed.
Beyond entertainment, few categories are mature enough to compete with regular apps. Microsoft might be one of the best positioned to expand into other niches. While Hololens isn't prominent due to its lofty price, they're pushing the technology beyond entertainment. Their new Mixed Reality Platform is quite promising.
On top of the problems with content, the distribution of content is a mess. The word that comes to mind is "confusing." Finding content isn't easy. Each hardware manufacturer uses a different platform, trying, in vain, to achieve a virtual integration.
The strategy makes sense when you own the hardware, and you're already terrific on that part of the value chain. The problem is, none of the current players are good at that. None has a distinct hardware advantage, which means, there is no reason to flock to their distribution platform.
If any, I would say that SteamVR is the significant winner. They not only carry the VR experiences for the HTC Vibe and Oculus but, Microsoft's Mixed Reality ones too.
The problem with Steam is that its primary focus is gaming. Most of the current SteamVR experiences are games. Time will say if they can manage to outgrow their gaming origins and become the de-facto VR content platform.
The hardware fragmentation is also a problem right now. While there aren't that many headset options, namely, Oculus, HTC, and Samsung,
Brand fragmentation is on the way, but more critical than that, it's the fragmentation the technology itself is generating. VR headset capacities are changing every 4-5 months. A headset now will underperform in less than a year. This is problematic, not only for the users but because it creates a content legacy problem. A quick look at Google's DayDream store shows many VR apps with compatibility issues.
Last but not least, the hardware isn't there yet. We've gone from low frame rates and dizziness problems to better frame rates and enhanced tracking with external sensors.
Still, the experience has three significant obstacles. The first one is The Cord. The fact that you need to have the headset connected to something is a predicament. It gets in the way of mobility, just when everything is becoming mobile.
Luckily the cord is disappearing with the new standalone headsets by Oculus (Oculus Go) and HTC (HTC Vibe Focus, HTC Link).
There second major block is the need for external sensors to track the user's movement. Oculus had a camera, HTC Vibe introduced external infrared sensors, and finally, the HTC Vibe Focus features onboard sensors. This is allowing for an authentic "standalone" experience with what's called 6DoF.
The last major hurdle, though, is still the computational requirements. HTC Focus allows for a standalone experience, but there is a catch, you can't run the most power-hungry VR experiences. For that, you still need to rig the device to a computer.
What's the ideal? We need devices capable of being mobile and capable of running the top VR experiences, where the real value is delivered. Anything below that threshold will make it hard for the mainstream to buy into it.
Virtual Reality will change our world. I do not doubt it. I've been trying headsets for a while now. It always blows my mind. Still, there are some significant issues in several parts of the VR value chain that need to be resolved first.
The ecosystem is still very confusing. The focus now is on getting the technology to a mass-market-ready point. The technology works, but still requires a substantial investment regarding hardware, time and money. That needs to change.
Due to that focus, everything else suffers. Every single content platform suffers from a lack of clarity, confusing messages or bad UX. The iPhone took over the market, not only due to its superior hardware but due to its superior usability. The VR space needs a simplification of the messages, hardware, and platforms.
The VR industry still needs a little longer to mature. The problem though is that the investment is required now. Most of the companies investing in VR right now should be doing it for the foreseeable future. There are still two or three more years of desert until we start seeing enough adoption to recover some of the investments.
One more thing. In all this industry there is a prominent absent, which is Apple. So far they've been sitting on the sidelines, arguing the technology isn't there yet. After their recent iPhone X release, I have to wonder if they have something in stock, despite Cook's recent statements on the matter.