With the impending release of the Oculus Rift headset in the first quarter of 2016, virtual reality is about to become an actual reality. Or so the latest hype train would have everyone believe.
Forecasting firm IHS Technology expects 38 million VR headsets to ship by 2020 for a market value of US$2.7 billion, more than double the $1.1bn expected next year. Hardware companies such as Samsung and HTC are clamouring for a piece of that pie with Oculus rivals while content creators ranging from newspapers to movie studios are diving headlong into VR production.
But like all ultra-hyped technologies, it’s overblown. The reality check on virtual reality is that it still has big obstacles to overcome before it can achieve wide-scale adoption.
There’s no question the technology has come a long way since its early days in the 1990s. Initially hampered by poor graphics, bulky hardware and insufficient processing power, VR was an unimpressive experience that tended to make users nauseous.
A generation later, fantastically real graphics and high-definition video coupled with cloud-based computing horsepower mean that even everyday smartphones are now capable of delivering amazingly immersive, nausea-free experiences.
That explains why Facebook spent $2bn last year to acquire Oculus, the San Francisco-based start-up leading the charge. Founder Mark Zuckerberg is betting that VR will be the internet’s next big platform, like Facebook, and he wants to be there before anyone else.
Zuckerberg may be right, but like the internet before smartphones, VR is going to be a mostly stationary experience that people will enjoy while sitting on their duffs, at least for the foreseeable future. There just aren’t many ways in which users can interact with virtual environments.
Video gamers are a step ahead. They’ve been exploring virtual worlds with the help of hand-held controllers for years, albeit on two-dimensional screens, which is why IHS expects games to account for almost half the VR market in 2016.
But the average Joe wants nothing to do with such controllers and their many buttons and thumbsticks. Gamepads are and always have been an acquired skill beyond the desire of the mainstream to acquire.
A few enterprising companies are trying to solve the issue with haptic gloves and circular treadmills that translate real-world movement into VR. (Haptic is force feedback, like what you get in video game controllers or your phone on vibrate. It simulates feel.)
But these contraptions are off-putting to even hardened gamers, never mind the mainstream, because of their cost – the Virtuix Omni is taking pre-orders at $699 – and the space they take up. Who has the room to store an adult-sized baby walker?
Many VR experiences are therefore destined to be stationary situations where users have no agency. Without movement and the user feeling like they are really in control of the experience, virtual reality could end up a short-lived novelty.
Concert and sports event promoters might do well by selling stationary front-row virtual seats or even unprecedented access like, say, joining a band onstage – California-based NextVR, for example, is working with Coldplay to do just that. But such events are only appealing if they’re broadcast live, and that’s where another major obstacle comes in – the internet bandwidth to deliver VR in real-time is still years away.
Even streaming non-VR 4K video is currently a problem, with Netflix recommending an internet connection of at least 25 megabits per second to do so.
Average global connection speeds in 2014 topped out far below that, at 4.5 Mbps, according to tracking firm Akamai. Even leader South Korea barely qualified at 22.2 Mbps, while the UAE was at only 5.7 Mbps.
4K video also gobbles up about seven gigabytes per hour of usage, which is enough to quickly plough through monthly data caps.
Sony is streaming on-demand video games, Netflix-style, in a few countries through its PlayStation Now service, but reviews have been lukewarm. Sony says the service requires only 5 Mbps connection speeds, but gamers are complaining that the downgraded graphics are worse than those on disc-based games.
VR is going to require more bandwidth than games or 4K, since it’s piping content in three dimensions rather than just two. And there can’t be any resolution compromises, given how literally in-your-face the technology is.
Virtual reality could very well be the internet’s next big platform, but the technology is still facing an actual reality that isn’t moving – literally – at anywhere near the same speed.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species