The market for consumer VR market is now in full swing, but despite bullish forecasts from companies with large investments in the space, the rapid emergence of augmented reality technology seems increasingly likely to steal its thunder.
At the DICE Europe conference in Barcelona last week, Unity Technologies CMO Clive Downie made a knowingly "bold" prediction: within the next 10 years, the number of people interacting with virtual reality on a daily basis will reach 1 billion.
Downie acknowledged that, right now, we're in the "gap of disappointment" with VR, where the installed base is small, and the existing content, while good, is, "nowhere near what we've been promised." Nevertheless, Unity - one of the biggest players in the VR space - is "100% certain" that the technology will have a huge impact on the world.
"I think there's going to be a billion people in VR in the next ten years, and that's going to come from mobile"
Clive Downie, Unity
"Mobile is going to get us closer than ever," Downie said. "No disrespect to the excellent Vive and the excellent Rift... But really, mobile is where the scale is going to be. Back to my point earlier, I think there's going to be a billion people in VR in the next ten years, and that's going to come from mobile."
Downie mentioned Google Daydream as a "major unlock" on the way to reaching that dizzying number. This will partly be down to the introduction of a mobile VR controller, but the real catalyst will be a combination of Google's scale and the Android ecosystem. If the average Android user upgrades their phone every five years, Downie argued, there will be 1 billion Daydream ready phones out there at the end of that period. "This is a big deal," he said. "Daydream is a big deal."
Downie wasn't the only VR enthusiast to take the stage at DICE Europe, but there was one notable voice for the opposition. Klaas Kersting, CEO of the mobile focused Flaregames, expressed major reservations about the VR market ever growing beyond a niche concern.
"VR is very immersive. On the other hand, it's not very social," Kersting said. "You wear something on your head, you filter everything out that's around you... That creates a hurdle to using these devices. Even if the technology gets smaller and more digestible, that will still be there.
"Nobody wants to wear several kilos on their head... It's something that will go away with time, but it will take a while. And it will take longer than people think."
"VR encloses and immerses the person into an experience that can be really cool but probably has a lower commercial interest over time"
Tim Cook, Apple
This is particularly relevant to Downie's trojan horse: mobile VR. Many of the qualities that make smartphones such an attractive (and vastly popular) platform for gaming are undermined when a VR headset is involved. Speaking at Casual Connect USA this year, Otherworld Interactive's Andrew Goldstein pointed out that, "mobile VR is much more about VR than it is about mobile. To me, it doesn't feel like a phone game; it feels like a VR game. It's more like Oculus Rift than it's like your cellphone." And if that's the case, it's fair to question just how many of those 1 billion Daydream-ready phones will actually used to sample the delights of virtual reality.
However, while Kersting was dismissive of VR specifically, he had a different take on another emerging technology. "There will be something that's more immersive," he said. "There will be something that blends realities - the real world with gaming - but I would guess that it would be more like AR - an AR lens, or AR glasses."
The idea that AR devices might eventually supercede VR headsets has been put forward before, not least by Epic's Tim Sweeney, who told the crowd at this year's China Joy that, "AR will be the biggest technological revolution in our lifetimes." The open question for Sweeney was how long VR had before AR hardware made it surplus to the majority of requirements. That may be the window in which platforms like Rift, Vive, Gear VR and Daydream have to overcome the kind of obstacles that Kersting described - some of which are more grounded in social and behavioural norms than the technology itself - and it's a window that may not be open for too much longer. The heavily funded AR startup Magic Leap, for example, has forecasted widespread penetration for its device within the next five years.
"AR is the direction that I think is far more interesting and promising - for technology and, really, for humanity"
John Hanke, Niantic
The eventual primacy of AR over VR is now an increasingly common point-of-view. This week, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Good Morning America America that AR will be "the larger of the two, probably by far," citing similar reasons to Flaregames' Kersting. "Virtual reality sort of encloses and immerses the person into an experience that can be really cool but probably has a lower commercial interest over time," he said. "Less people will be interested in that."
Niantic's John Hanke - who, admittedly, has a great deal to gain from AR winning out - expressed a similar opinion on the Recode podcast. "AR is the direction that I think is far more interesting and promising - for technology and, really, for humanity," he said. "In a VR situation, you're isolating yourself from everyone around you and entering this completely virtual space. AR is designed to add, enhance the things you do as a human being: Being outside, socializing with other people, shopping, playing, having fun.
"AR can make all those things better."