Virtual reality – computer-generated 3D environments that can range from startling realism to abstract wonderland – has been on the verge of being widely accepted for years without ever really taking off.
The pandemic should have been the highlight of virtual reality, providing an escape route for millions of locked-in homes. Special helmets and gloves allow people to interact with a three-dimensional, 360-degree environment, which seems to be suitable for people trapped inside. But consumers preferred simpler, more accessible technologies like Zoom, Nintendo Switch, and streaming services like Netflix.
It’s the latest disappointment in an industry famous for stop-start progress.
Patrick Susmilch, 33, an administrative assistant in Los Angeles, thought it was time for a VR headset after the lockdown began. He has a PlayStation and Nintendo Switch and was spending about an hour and a half a day playing when he couldn’t do outdoor hobbies like rock climbing at the start of the pandemic. He had tried an Oculus while it was still a Kickstarter project in 2013, and believed it would be ready for prime time in 2020.
“I was stuck at home here in Los Angeles,” he said. “I thought now must be the time.”
Industry watchers have been thinking the same for years. Facebook was so impressed with the first demonstrations of the Oculus Rift in 2012 that it bought the company for $ 2 billion. Rivals like the HTC Vive and the Samsung Gear were launched in 2015. The Oculus Rift finally went on sale in 2016.
But consumers balked at the expense of hardware: a headset costs several hundred dollars, the same price as video game consoles that support hundreds of games. Early VR headsets also lacked a game or service that would make them indispensable, such as web browsers for consumer PCs or mobile internet for iPhones. The heavy weight of the headsets, slow software, and the tendency to cause nausea at times also kept VR from taking off.
“It’s not easy trying to exercise with a 4-pound weight strapped to your head,” Susmilch said. “And it doesn’t feel good to sweat straight into a $ 400 electronic device you bought.”
Facebook shut down the Rift last month. His latest devices were more successful. It launched the $ 300 Oculus Quest 2 in October, a cheaper and more sophisticated version of its original $ 400 wireless Oculus Quest. Facebook doesn’t release sales figures, but it does claim Quest 2 sales have been better than expected and have already surpassed all of its predecessors combined since launch.
The stand-alone headset does not need to be connected to a computer or game console, and is designed for gaming with two controllers.
During a call with analysts in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the Quest 2, while still primarily used for gaming, is increasingly being used for activities such as gaming. fitness and virtual workplaces.
“I think augmented and virtual reality is going to allow for a deeper sense of presence and social connection than any existing platform, and they are going to play an important role in how we interact with computers at home. future, ”Zuckerberg said. . “So we’ll continue to invest heavily in creating the best experiences here, and that represents a significant part of the overall growth of our R&D budget. “
“Quest 2 is a necessary step towards the maturity of virtual reality,” said Tuong Nguyen, analyst at Gartner. “It is also an expected step in the sense that consumers and the market have been conditioned by smartphone trends to see very regular technological upgrades.”
Hardware updates are good, Nguyen said, but creating more content and ways to create content, as well as improving the usability of gadgets, are needed for the technology to fully mature, he said. -he declares.
Part of the success of the original Quest was the VR first-person shooter “Half-Life: Alyx” which sold around 680,000 copies in its first month, according to Nielsen’s SuperData. It’s a hit for VR games, but still niche compared to games like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which sold 13.41 million copies worldwide in its first six. weeks.
Creating content for virtual reality is “a difficult task,” Nguyen said. “A lot of companies are creating platforms that you can build things on. But the talent and content pipeline is not there yet.”
Susmilch scoured online retail sites until he found an Oculus Quest he could buy from a local Best Buy. He liked it, but said the novelty wore off after just a few days. The “Superhot VR” first person shooter was fun, but it beat it after a few hours. He hoped games like “Beat Saber,” a rhythm game that encourages movement, and the boxing game “Box VR” would help him exercise, but found the headset unwieldy.
On the VR workplace side, the lack of networking capabilities has also held things back. Zoom was ready to go when the pandemic hit, and people could use whatever hardware they already needed to connect. While some small VR companies like Spatial offer VR meeting software, most people who suddenly found themselves working from home didn’t have headsets and employers weren’t likely to spend money. ‘money to ship them.
George Jijiashvili, senior analyst at research firm Omdia, said Quest 2 was a big turning point for virtual reality. Its lower price and wireless connectivity are two big pluses. Omdia estimates that 2.3 million Quest 2s were sold worldwide in the last quarter of 2020. That’s about half of what it took Sony four years to sell its PlayStation VR headsets.
Still, “the massive adoption of VR headsets remains in over a decade,” Jijiashvili said, due to the lack of successful games or a “killer app” and the friction required to set up and use the headsets. . He estimates that people spent $ 1 billion on VR content in 2020 – a drop in the ocean compared to total consumer spending of $ 168 billion on video games in 2020.
Susmilch ended up returning his Oculus. “I used the money to buy hiking gear and just spent the weekends hiking in the Angeles National Forest,” he said. The Quest 2 could solve some of its comfort issues, he said, but he has no plans to buy it. “At the end of the day, there just isn’t much going on in VR right now. Maybe when the Quest 3 comes out, “he said.