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The reason mass market VR won’t come soon

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A little more than a year ago, Facebook acquired Oculus VR (Virtual Reality helmet designer and manufacturer), for $2 billion – kicking off a series of investments and start-ups in the burgeoning field.

All manufacturers – from Intel to Samsung – are following suit and contributing to this new hype. Content studios, equipment developers, study tours, cameras, developers, are all rushing into the race. (If you have time, read this Medium article, which I find extremely insightful). Of course, in a self-fulfilling prophecy approach, forecasts are flying through the roof, betting on a market that will reach $150B in the next five years!

But the hype ignores some key facts – if explored closely – that suggest that 3D, augmented reality or even VR 1.0 – will most likely fail. Virtual reality will continue to be virtual for many years – at least for the mass market – as augmented reality and 3D are. Here are a few big explanations for why…

It offers a pathetic user experience.

I’m not always sure if everyone writing about VR have actually tested the equipment and user experience. Setting up and using a Virtual Reality helmet is pretty painful for the following reasons:

The set-up is convoluted. Except for the Samsung VR helmet, the level of expertise needed is far above the average tech user. In fact, the technical skills needed to use most available VR products means that only those with a strong tech background will be able to use it.
The screen resolution. To have a good immersion, you need to have a decent resolution. The fact that you watch a screen so close to your eyes makes this expectation even bigger. A 4K resolution is the minimum needed and yet none the VR helmet offer this resolution.
Smooth movement. Once you have great definition, you need to propose a high refresh rate of the screen or FPS (frame per second) in order to offer a smooth display when you move around. The correct level is around 90 to 120 FPS.
Hardware console. To manage a 4K resolution picture at 90 to 120 FPS properly, you need to have a high-tier boosted PC, a configuration that starts out at $2,000. As a point of reference, even the latest console PS4 is not powerful enough to manage a 4K game.
Leach. It is never shown on photos about VR, but you always need to have cable that links your helmet to the console / PC (the only exception being the Samsung VR, which is a plug-and-play solution with a low resolution). It’s pretty uncomfortable after a while.

There’s no customer.
Just because something is innovative, cool, and has massive financial backing doesn’t mean it will be inherently successful. The most successful products solve a problem for customers or fulfil a need. At its core, virtual reality does neither. For the moment, there are only three potential types of users that seem to be candidates for the VR market.

The first of these user types? The gamer. At first glance, the gamer sounds like VR’s number one customer. And it is true that VR provides a true added value to video games, especially in the first-person shooter and racing categories. Plus, gamers are usually technologically-savvy and open to investing. Nevertheless, the segment is very demanding. The innovation around 3D games and 3D TV was focusing on these people as a natural target. But mass-market 3D never took off – even for the gamer. There is a risk that the same thing will happen for VR.

Then there’s the porn watcher. While consumers of adult content would seem like an obvious major target, there are several, seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of making virtual porn a reality. For one, the equipment to provide feedback and interaction for the user doesn’t exist for the mass market. In addition, this market isn’t as fanatical as the gaming market, making it less likely that they’d be willing to shell out the big bucks required to develop the products necessary.

And finally, there’s the entertainment enthusiast. The ability to attend a concert, a show, or a game in virtual reality is pretty attractive. If it is a real market, the question is: will it be big enough to support a full industry?

It’s too expensive for the user.
The price of a helmet is around $400 to $600. But to work properly, you need to have a PC that costs more than $1,000. The full package is clearly close to $2,000. While some enthusiastic geeks will invest in the market, this price range keeps VR from producing mass-market products.

By running a sanity check on previous similar innovations such as 3D, Google Glass, Augmented Reality, factoring in the operational constraints of what virtual reality means for the consumer, and taking into consideration the technical challenges and the potential markets, I have already posed many open questions that question the future of VR. While it undoubtedly has potential for today’s businesses and civil organizations, betting on it for the mass-market segment is a high risk venture in the short run.

Nevertheless, with the evolution of the respective technologies – especially on the hardware side – Virtual Reality should be ready for mass market in 5 to 10 years. Will companies be patient enough to wait that long? One thing is for sure: Facebook will.

Gilles Raymond is the CEO and founder News Republic, a mobile news syndicator. Gilles wrote a master thesis called “Virtual Reality Myth and Reality” in 1994, and has been following the market ever since.

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