Today's Login tackles a single topic — virtual reality, and why it's not helping us through the coronavirus crisis the way many thought it might.
It's also 1,944 words, a 7-minute read.
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:
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.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
One simple reason VR isn't more popular today: You need special hardware to experience it, yet most people haven't been persuaded to buy a headset — and many of those who did so own a less capable model that's gathering dust.
Why it matters: VR lost its place in today's shelter-in-place survival kit because the industry failed to bring the right mix of products to market.
For many people, their first VR headset was something like Samsung's Gear VR or Google's Daydream or Cardboard — basically a pair of lenses that attached to a smartphone, drawing on its display, battery and processing power.
Even among the minority of people who do own a more capable device, the industry is quite fragmented.
What's next: Headsets are getting better and lighter, addressing two key limitations, with more models on the way. Market researcher IDC predicted that global AR and VR headset would dip 10% in the first quarter of 2020, and drop 24% in the second quarter due to the pandemic.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
Many have pointed out that, as hard as the pandemic is, it would have been much harder 10 or 15 years ago, without today's high-speed internet connections, multiple streaming services, and apps like Zoom, Slack and Google Classroom.
Yes, but: Another way to look at this is that in just a few years, the experience of sheltering in place might be way better, once augmented and virtual reality become mainstream.
Here's how a more mature VR environment could make our time apart more meaningful:
The virtual office could look a lot more like a traditional office, with face-to-face interactions using realistic avatars and facial expressions, as well as better group interactions.
Education is struggling mightily to meet the challenge of the moment. For many, especially younger students, a series of back-to-back Zoom meetings is not a reasonable replacement for the classroom.
A sense of physical proximity to each other could be better replicated by more sophisticated VR than what’s currently on the market. One of the hardest parts of the pandemic is being physically distant from people we care about.
Be smart: While the technology isn't ready to be a savior during this pandemic, its obvious future utility may help the industry figure out where to put its energies.
Between the lines: Many big players have long seen the promise of this space, but have also been measured in their investment, recognizing the technology wasn't yet ready for mass adoption.
Sports Scramble lets you bowl using everything from a basketball to a pineapple. Screenshot: YouTube
For this project, I spent a few hours over the last week with an Oculus Quest headset, trying out a number of different options for play, work, education and relaxation.
Why it matters: To really appreciate the current state of VR requires spending some time in a headset.
Gaming: I started with Beat Saber, one of VR's most popular titles, which offers a cross between Candy Crush and Guitar Hero, as you slash blocks to the beat using a virtual light saber.
Entertainment: A number of standard streaming services are available in VR, along with more immersive options, such as YouTube VR and content custom designed for the headset. I watched a little Netflix. I also revisited an immersive music video from Beatie Wolfe, a friend and musician who specializes in bringing together music and technology.
Travel: As someone who was a frequent flier before the pandemic, I do miss getting to see new parts of the world. I took the opportunity to use VR to travel to Costa Rica, a place that I haven't been (and still hope to one day).
Exercise: As in real life, this seems to come last on my list. I didn't get a chance to check out Supernatural, a new VR title that mixes some of the feel of Beat Saber with more of a workout.
Spatial's Jacob Loewenstein speaks with Axios' Ina Fried, within Spatial's VR app. Screenshot: Axios
While two-dimensional video chat has become the standard for remote office meetings, a number of startups are working to bring that experience to VR.
Why it matters: VR has some advantages, including its immersiveness and the feeling of connection. However, as with other uses of VR, there are drawbacks, including challenges related to multitasking, or even taking notes.
Driving the news:
My thought bubble: I recently tested out Spatial, and being able to meet via avatar was a nice change of pace from the usual square grid of a Zoom call. But other aspects of work remain tricky in VR, especially for a journalist trying to take notes during a meeting.
Yes, but: VR-based collaboration could yet have its moment in the next couple of years. Prior to the pandemic, there wasn't a compelling enough case, since people that needed to work closely together had better options.