It’s the immersive experience that was heralded as the dawn of a new age in gaming. It was set to revolutionize entertainment, with developers creating more immersive worlds and games. It was the new version of virtual reality, and its popularity was forecast to only increase.
The trend was started by Oculus in 2012 when a Kickstarter campaign for its inaugural Rift headset reached $2.4 billion. The hype got so big that Facebook bought the company two years later for $2 billion.
So what’s happened to VR’s popularity? Is it still considered the tech that will disrupt industries and change the way we live?
The VR heyday
Oculus may have started the VR buzz, but it wasn’t alone for long. In 2014, the same year in which Facebook bought Oculus, Sony announced Project Morpheus, a VR headset for the PlayStation 4. Samsung wasn’t far behind with Samsung Gear VR.
2016 saw the release of the HTC Vive SteamVR headset, the first commercially available VR headset with sensor-based tracking. It was the technology of the future – something that had only really been seen in science fiction.
With so many companies working on their own VR systems and products, the market was expected to explode. But even in 2020, VR game spending only accounted for 0.4% of the $130.6 billion revenue generated by gaming hardware and software makers. What happened to VR’s popularity?
Herein lies the problem
The main issue with VR is the technology itself. Most headsets need a VR-compatible PC – something with a bit of power behind it. Most people’s everyday computers just don’t have enough graphics memory, and using a laptop is nothing short of a pipe dream.
It also doesn’t help that VR headsets are uncomfortable. Clunky and hanging on your head, they can cause aches and pains when worn for too long. While a few hours of traditional gaming will leave you with nothing more than a backache from bad posture, your head, neck, and feet will suffer exploring virtual worlds. That’s probably why the average VR game time recorded on Steam in 2020 was just 32 minutes. Some unlucky users will also experience motion sickness and eye strain.
Nonetheless, one of the principal issues is actually the content. There isn’t much to do in VR that can’t be done the traditional way – at least at the moment. This goes beyond gaming. Watching films with friends across the world can be done through apps and websites without wearing a hot, heavy headset for 120 minutes.
But even the games themselves can be a turn-off. Some have argued that playing traditional computer games gets some of its appeals from allowing the player to feel in control of a world. VR’s immersive experience, on the other hand, leaves the player feeling small, taking away some of the enjoyment.
But even when you have the right PC, and you’re okay with the clunky hardware, it’s often the price that puts people off. Hundreds of pounds or dollars is a lot of money for a technology that people don’t know very well (and one that might leave them feeling sick after a few minutes). And with so few VR-compatible games on the market at the moment, it just doesn’t seem like a worthwhile investment – especially for Mac owners, now that Steam has quietly dropped its Mac VR support.
VR popularity in a pandemic
In March 2020, the world changed. As coronavirus spread, countries enforced lockdowns. With more and more people stuck inside, spending on hobbies skyrocketed, and it led to a VR boom.
Sales of Facebook’s newest device, the Oculus Quest 2, drove the social media giant’s Q4 non-advertising revenue to a staggering $885 million – a 156% increase year-over-year. In fact, Facebook’s VR wing (renamed Facebook Reality Labs in 2020) sees the future of VR leaning more towards standalone headsets like its Quest 2.
Despite their thoughts, the market is still being populated with wired headsets. Valve saw 1.7 million new VR users in 2020, and Steam’s VR game revenue grew by 71%. One game counted for a staggering 39% of that revenue growth: Half-Life: Alyx. A first-person shooter that bridged the gap between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, it was widely anticipated and could only be played in VR.
There are currently more than 171 million VR users worldwide, and the global AR and VR market is expected to grow to $209.2 billion by 2022. Sony has even jumped back on the VR bandwagon, announcing its next-gen PSVR for PlayStation 5 that could be released as early as 2022. VR’s popularity is rising again.
Captain of industry
It’s not just gaming that sees the good in VR – businesses are using it all over the world. During the pandemic, many companies adopted the tech for distance training, meetings, and sometimes even customer service. In fact, when it comes to customer service, 80% of consumers say they feel positive about experiencing branded VR tactics.
The use of VR in training is far from new – it has been used in the military and medicine for years. But now it’s spreading into engineering, education, and manufacturing. When implementing VR in engineering can reduce design time by 10% and construction time by 7%, it’s a no-brainer. That’s probably why 43% of manufacturing companies say VR will become mainstream in their processes within the next three years.
By 2030, it’s estimated that 23 million jobs will involve AR and VR in one way or another. A considerable amount of these will be in the US, UK, Germany, and China; countries with larger economies.
A bright virtual future
VR’s popularity hasn’t been a steady rise or the astronomical boom that was expected. As David Cole, founder and CEO of DFC Intelligence, put it: “The problem with VR was that […] it was way overhyped. It was doomed to underperform by a large margin. However, the devices and content have been improving to make it start to look slightly interesting to a mass consumer base.”
But while it hasn’t yet managed to take off in the gaming sphere, VR has found a niche in other industries. As it becomes more refined (and perhaps a little cheaper), its adoption will no doubt increase. Perhaps it will change the world after all.