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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."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

NASA estimates Tonga volcano exploded with force of 5-6 megatons

A satellite image of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Dec. 24, before the eruption. Photo: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

NASA scientists estimate the power of Tonga's volcanic eruption over the weekend to have been 5-6 Megatons of TNT equivalent.

Threat level: Saturday's eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Haʻapai volcano and subsequent tsunami killed at least three people. Scientists warn an "ash-seawater cocktail" poses a potentially toxic health threat, and drinking water could be contaminated.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

New York AG alleges "significant evidence" of Trump Organization fraud

Combination images of former President Trump and New York State Attorney General Letitia James. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Scott Heins/Getty Images

New York's attorney general filed a motion Tuesday seeking to compel former President Trump and his two elder children to appear for sworn testimony in her office's civil investigation into the Trump Organization's financial dealings.

Why it matters: Attorney General Letitia James revealed new details in the court filing and a statement on her office's investigation into the Trump Organization's business practices, including a preliminary finding alleging the company used "fraudulent and misleading asset valuations to obtain economic benefits."

4 hours ago - Technology

Ex-N.Y. Post digital chief files lawsuit alleging sexual harassment

Richard B. Levine) (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

Former New York Post editor Michelle Gotthelf is suing her former employer, its parent company News Corp. and two editors, alleging she was reprimanded after complaining to senior executives that she was sexually harassed by retired N.Y. Post editor-in-chief Col Allan. The N.Y. Post issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

Why it matters: "I felt that I owed it to myself and I owed it to the news organization and the people who answered to me," Gotthelf, who was a long time editor at the N.Y. Post, told Axios in an interview.