Is Home VR Doomed?

Few mass market tech failures have been as remarkable as at-home 3DTV. While 3D still has a life in theaters, no TV maker bothers to hawk (or, in many cases, include) the feature anymore.

Why? Dependence on glasses for home entertainment was soundly rejected. It’s basically the same story for Virtual Reality (VR) in the home, although wearing VR headgear is a lot more uncomfortable than wearing 3D TV glasses.

Could this same no-glasses-at-home aversion keep the nascent home VR market from taking off? For now, yes. But advances in headgear and displays will come over time as the VR experience is undeniably compelling—if done properly. The recent trend of providing the VR experience via arcades suggests a budding consumer interest.

So, what about the headsets? Let’s assume that, with time, VR hardware developers improve upon the current state of affairs. Until they do, assessing VR with the current consumer equipment is like putting the cart before the horse. Even more, there are five other issues the VR industry must first address before convincing Walmart shoppers that VR is something they would like to do at home.

1. Set unified/modular standards. The VR market is a mess of mobile, video game console and PC devices. What, exactly, is a consumer supposed to buy to “do” VR? Okay, there’s the headset that connects to the PC (Oculus, HTC). How do I know if my PC can “do” VR and how many VR-capable PCs are there? (The disappointing answer: not many). And the Samsung Gear only works with select Samsung phones. What’s the experiential difference between a $400 head-mounted device (HMD) and a $10 Google Cardboard device?

In addition to hardware standards, the industry needs some clarification on VR hardware and basic feature nomenclature. Although they are different technologies, there is confusion about the difference between VR and AR and how they might work together in a single immersive experience.

2. Get all the major players involved. Apple is obviously conspicuous by its VR absence and even Microsoft is partly MIA.  And the third-party Mixed Reality (MR) HMDs work with a variety of Windows PCs, but not on its own Xbox video game system. Apple is rumored to be working on a high resolution combo VR/AR solution due in 2020, but Microsoft recently affirmed it has no plans to add VR to Xbox. These are two companies that you would expect to be leading the home VR charge, but instead they seem to be hanging back. What do they know that the rest of the VR industry doesn’t? Or, are they working on something behind closed doors that could immediately vault them into VR leadership positions? Or, have they drawn the conclusion that the technology isn’t ready for the consumer market and don’t want to repeat the 3D TV failed experiment.

3. Lose the wires and the standalone sensors. Being restrained by cables that connect the HMD to a VR source device limits movement—and movement is critical for full VR enjoyment. Placing sensors in a room to create a dedicated VR space is even more of a non-starter for most consumers. Fortunately, as previously noted here, there are wireless HMD solutions underway, while standalone sensors are beginning to be incorporated into HMDs. But it’ll take a while for both wireless and integrated sensors to work their way into the VR hardware ecosystem, along with Ready Player One-like omni-directional treadmills and pods/stations that enable free movement in a limited physical space.

4. Develop compelling VR-specific content. Every new media format starts by porting existing content from previous formats before it finds its platform-specific purpose. Right now, VR content is a confusing cornucopia of games, user-created 360-degree video, educational material and other experiments. But there appears to be a lack of stand-out content driving demand. Of course, development is occurring and there is the inevitable quest to create a killer VR app, as I outlined last December. What’s really missing isn’t necessarily content, but a cinematic/presentation language that establishes VR as a radically new format, not merely a new way to experience old content.

5. Create more resolution/wider field-of-view. Presenting a seamless and realistic view of the “real” world inside a VR HMD is challenging, largely because of resolution. Most VR is still 2K/1080p, but when you spread two million pixels to render a spherical 360-degree space, you get an experience barely comparable to VHS tape. In its sports coverage, NextVR uses what it calls “front 180,” cutting down the field of view to only the action in front of the viewer and not the audience behind. This helps maintain a higher-resolution experience comparable to 2K TVs. A number of HMD makers have introduced 4K HMDs and some are working on 8K, but these higher resolutions run into a bandwidth wall when transmitting the content.

Even if these five technological issues are adequately addressed, consumer resistance to wearing an isolating and uncomfortable HMD at home will be difficult to overcome. As a result, the cynic in me says that we will never reach the kind of VR mass home market depicted in Ready Player One.