Home Virtual Reality’s Problem: It’s the Headset, Stupid

A few weeks ago, I piloted an F18 Hornet fighter jet off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis. I gently cruised above the coast of the Dubai, dipping down as low as 5,000 feet to buzz the palm tree-shaped artificial island groups jutting out into the Arabia Gulf. Except I wasn’t in an actual F18 Hornet cockpit or in the Arabian Sea. I was ensconced in a replica of an F18 Hornet cockpit at the Light VR Cinema, PlayLab and Studio on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, wearing a professional Vrgineer XTAL VR mixed reality headset.

The F18 flight experience was compelling, both exhilarating and calming at the same time. I’ve been in the actual real-life cockpit of both a blimp and a helicopter in flight, and this virtual flying experience felt close to those physical realities, vividly illustrating the power of Virtual Reality (VR).

I could not have had this dual physical/VR experience at home—it’s too expensive and the hardware too expansive. But VR all by itself is hardly a booming success at home, and its lack of take-off is puzzling nearly every VR analyst and pundit.

Yes, VR is experiencing healthy CAGR growth, more than 50 percent according to many 2017-2019 numbers I’ve seen. But most analysts also project that fewer than 10 million home VR Head Mounted Displays (HMD) will be sold in 2019. Oculus believes it will sell around 1.3 million of its new Quest HMD this year. As of May, Sony reported it had sold a total of 4.2 million PlayStation VR HMDs in three years. It’s estimated there will be 171 million VR users worldwide by the end of this year.

These seem to be impressive numbers, but really aren’t. By comparison, it’s estimated that more than 200 million smart speakers will be sold worldwide this year, a product category around the same age as VR (albeit less expensive). Plus, some observers believe that up to three quarters of these “home” VR hardware sales are for industrial and commercial applications, such as training and support. 

On a corporate level, Microsoft’s VR support seems to wax and wane, while Samsung—once one of VR’s most ardent developers—has pretty much pulled back. Its most advanced phone, the new Galaxy Note 10, is not compatible with the company’s Gear VR HMD, and the company barely talks about VR anymore.

So what’s the problem?

Most VR industry observers optimistically believe we’ll eventually live in a VR-centric world a la Ready Player One, that VR will sit alongside radio, television, the personal computer and the web as a major foundational communication and entertainment platform. To reach this VR ubiquity, several correctable factors present merely temporary roadblocks. These include the lack of compatibility/inter-operability, low resolution, need for wired tethering, lack of compelling content, lack of killer app(s), etc. (See my previous blog: Is Home VR Doomed?)

But tech history and human psychology may provide a more fundamental reason for VR’s lackluster home adoption: the head mounted display. Consumers have NEVER adopted—widely or otherwise—a home technology that requires wearing something over their eyes. Consider the most recent example of eyewear aversion: 3D TV. Unlike VR, 3D tech was relatively simple and developed. There was plenty of content, the hardware was widely available, the glasses were fairly simple (at least in the passive format), and 3D still endures in theaters. And yet, 3D TV at home just disappeared. Ditto for Google Glass for consumers.

Apparently, consumers have not accepted wearing technology-centric eyewear at home, regardless of how compelling the experience may be. Away from home in the growing number of supervised VR parlors? Sure. At home? Not so much.

Why?

Perhaps the “no-VR-at-home” roadblock is a by-product of the primary reason people consume leisure content at home—convenience, relaxation and distraction. When we want to escape from the chaos of work and the outside world, it’s just easier to turn on the TV, boot  up a video game or swipe-up on a smartphone than it is to don VR goggles with controllers and wires, assuming all are fully powered.

Enjoying VR at a retail parlor is completely different and where the true future VR market could lie, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s similar to the difference between a video arcade and a home gaming console rig back in the 1970s and 1980s when you could play Pong! or Donkey Kong at home, but the experience and the technology were far more fully realized at an arcade.

Same with VR. As evidenced by my virtual F18 excursion, the VR arcade experience is miles ahead of the home version, at least for now. Maybe VR will travel the same path as the early arcade vs. home experience. While there are still video arcades, they aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they once were. The rise of Sony PlayStation and Xbox and PC graphical-processing capabilities, monster-sized flat screen TVs, online multi-player gaming, and cinema-quality graphics, plotlines and production deliver a much more compelling gaming experience at home than in an arcade.

At a certain point, VR tech will similarly advance and, on a parallel track, pure VR content will emerge. If/when the home VR experience becomes more compelling (and without the inconveniences) than the VR arcade experience—THEN home/personal VR could become a thing. Whether or not head-set glasses will be part of that thing, however, remains to be seen.