May 13, 2020 - Technology

VR misses its pandemic moment

Illustration of a spotlight barely shining on VR goggles
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Virtual reality can bring faraway people together and take us places we can't physically go. That should make it the perfect breakout technology for both personal and professional life in the stay-at-home era — yet it remains a niche product.

The big picture: Virtual reality remains in its infancy, despite decades of on-and-off development, billions of dollars in investment and a ton of anticipation. Sales of VR headsets have repeatedly failed to live up to expectations. IDC reported 1.4 million units sold globally in Q4, down 23% from the prior year.

The fizzle is due to a number of reasons, the same issues that explain why VR isn't having a boom right now:

  • There was too much hype before the tech was ready. That meant many users experienced VR before the technology was particularly comfortable or compelling — leaving the industry in the stage of the hype cycle known as "the trough of disappointment."
  • It's supposed to be the next best thing to being somewhere, but often it isn't. VR is more immersive than the competition — but computers and gaming consoles offer more precise controls, TVs offer higher resolution, and both allow you to multitask.
  • It's still an uncomfortable experience for long periods of time. Even at its best, today's VR isn't to the point where it is comfortable to spend hours on end in a headset. And even if it were, the devices' battery life won't support that.
  • The interfaces aren't good enough to create viable workspaces. Seeing Microsoft Office and the web as just windows within a nearly limitless virtual space feels novel, until you find yourself trying to, say, use a keyboard that you can't see to take notes. "We are Frankensteining two different areas of computing together," says Gartner analyst Tuong Huy Nguyen. "Even if you're passionate and you want to do it, it is really awkward."
  • Many software makers and content providers that dabbled in VR have shifted their attention elsewhere. There are a decent number of games and documentaries available on VR platforms, but many developers have found other markets to be more lucrative and moved on.
  • A lot of VR companies have already pivoted to the enterprise market in a desperate move to stay alive. In most cases, that has meant trying to offer technical training for shop-floor workers, rather than the kind of general-purpose office computing or communications that might be more in demand right now.

The bottom line: All this meant that when so many Americans started sheltering in place and sought ways to connect with friends and co-workers, they turned to Zoom, Slack and social networks rather than VR headsets.

  • Excited as people were to experience computing in three dimensions — something that they'd been promised for decades — the experience was still far short of the sci-fi promise.
  • "It wasn't going to take us to 'The Matrix,'" Nguyen said. "That's where the mismatched expectations were."

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