With this week’s release of the Oculus Go, the company’s PC-less virtual reality headset, along with it comes a renewed focus on the current state of VR itself. While there’s no denying that VR has been the darling of the tech world for the past couple of years, numerous factors have prevented it from reaching mass consumer adoption, despite the billions spent on development, marketing, and research in the space.
Will Oculus Go fare any better? It’s possible, though many would argue that portability would rate low on the list of VR’s various stumbling blocks. Oculus Go itself is only slightly more than a self-contained Samsung Gear VR – a lower-powered offering that differentiates itself in that it doesn’t require the end user to clumsily stuff their Samsung smartphone into a plastic headset before each use.
In short, it’s a $199 Oculus-branded Gear VR for iPhone people.
So, if a low-cost headset of only marginally better quality than that of a face-mounted smartphone isn’t enough to get the masses into VR, what would?
VR is still that thing you tried once at a shopping mall and thought “that was pretty cool,” but most of us left it at that.
While there’s no denying that $199 is reasonable for the tech Oculus is packing into the Oculus Go, the company itself is quick to point out that it’s the Rift that is positioned to give the best possible virtual reality experience, at least in their product line-up. With the Rift retailing at $399 and requiring the additional investment of a capable PC, the cost is out of the range most people will pay for a still largely-unproven technology that most of us still associate purely with entertainment. Worse, similar headsets from HTC and Sony, the Vive, and PSVR respectively, don’t fare much better. Even the recently discounted PSVR still asks $199 plus the cost of a PlayStation 4, a heavy investment for many and certainly the number one factor keeping overall sales of VR well below initial projections made only a few years ago.
The Go’s $199 price point is a step in the right direction, no doubt, but $99 would put the headset more in line with typical consumer impulse buy products. This is, after all, not a new smartphone that helps us interact with the web, do our jobs, or keep up with friends on Snapchat, nor is it a social-friendly device that we can share in-person. VR is still that thing you tried once at a shopping mall and thought “that was pretty cool,” but most of us left it at that. We came, we saw, we were mildly impressed, and then we forgot all about it.
Quality of Experience
Without getting overly technical, all three of the big-name headsets, Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the Sony PSVR, share one thing: they’re all mostly underpowered compared to the 4K HDR displays the rest of the electronics world has been selling us for the past 5 years. That, along with the varying capabilities of the PC’s that power them, results in uneven experiences that are often far below what consumers feel they were promised back when Oculus and Vive weren’t yet on the market. Even the PS4-powered PSVR, the least powerful of the big 3 headsets, suffers from an uneven experience depending on the model of PlayStation 4 it’s plugged into. While this lack of standards might be acceptable when it comes to the differences between using say an iPhone 8 and an iPhone X, the differences in VR have a much larger impact, so much so that it can make you physically ill to use a VR headset (see point #3 below).
VR headset makers need to be better in addressing the quality disparity that exists between a user that plugs a device into a state of the art $3,000 PC vs the user that opts to try plugging one into an $800 laptop. While the tech-savvy might easily understand the do’s and don’ts involved, the average consumer does not – leading to frustrations that ultimately lead to fewer sales.
VR headsets need to maintain a minimum of 90 frames per second, the number of times the image updates in real-time, otherwise you’re going to vomit. Period. Motion sickness has been at the forefront of the VR discussion since it began, but little to nothing has been done to address it. Sure, we can all easily use VR for quick 5-minute sessions, but who do you know that uses their shiny new tech product for 5 minutes at a time? If VR is truly going to give us the immersive experiences it’s been promising, it needs to perform well consistently. No one is going to forget, much less forgive, a technology that makes them sick each time they use it.
A Killer App (or Two)
Save for an enjoyable game or two, VR mostly sucks. Yes, that’s a harsh word to use but it’s the sad truth. With severe limitations placed on how one moves through virtual environments and visual fidelity compromised by generally underpowered silicon (do you own a $3000 gaming PC? Didn’t think so), the current crop of VR apps remains very underwhelming. Even with Oculus Go touting 10,000+ apps at launch, none can claim to be the “Fortnite of VR” or the “Minecraft of Oculus.” They’re not even close. In fact, as a VR early-adopter myself, a quick glance at my own Oculus Rift library shows that I’ve only loaded up 3 apps more than 3 times. After my rather massive investment in the technology, that’s simply unacceptable. Sure, that’s early adopter tax at its most obnoxious but 3 times? I’m almost VR-level ill thinking about how much money I’ve spent per VR session. A killer app, any killer app, would go a long way to quelling my buyer’s remorse.
In baseball, it’s 3 strikes and you’re out. By my count, VR already has 4.
All is Not Lost in the Land of Virtual Reality (Maybe)
In baseball, it’s 3 strikes and you’re out. By my count, VR already has 4. So, is that it? Is VR doomed to join the ranks of dead tech that finds once-expensive gadgets banished to the dirty aisles of local thrift stores, all while their creators and fans struggle to figure out what went wrong?
Personally, I think the answer can be found in another reality, that of augmented reality devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens. While the HoloLens itself remains disturbingly pricey and rather ridiculous looking, Microsoft itself might deserve more credit than I’d normally give them for keeping it off store shelves while they figure out how to make it practical and at least 10x less embarrassing to wear in public. HoloLens and other AR headsets don’t need to display much of anything in “full screen,” meaning that the problems of nausea could be fully eliminated from the start. Additionally, Microsoft has already been quick to demonstrate that HoloLens has myriad practical uses – providing visual cues to engineers, medical information to doctors, and even allowing the rest of us to cover any wall in our home with a virtual TV set. If the killer apps elude VR, Microsoft and to a lesser degree Apple, seem to be doing their best to ensure AR has plenty of them before even releasing devices to market.
Whether AR or VR or some combination thereof, one thing is certain. Someday soon you’re going to be wearing a fully networked computing device on your face. Hopefully, it’s somewhat affordable, doesn’t require you to tote around a 20lb. personal computer, and doesn’t make you ill after using it for 10 minutes.