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Has the VR boom hit a wall?

Enormous progress has been made in headset design and software development for VR - but without a major technological leap forward, current devices won't reach the mass market

Executives leave major companies all the time, and it's important not to read too much into any individual departure; the fate of a company, let alone an entire industry sector, can rarely be read from the tea leaves of a handful of management level career moves.

All the same, the departure of Brendan Iribe from the VR company he co-founded, Oculus, is an interesting point at which to take stock of the state of the VR market. With Iribe's exit, the two most high-profile of Oculus' founding team are both gone - Palmer Luckey departed early last year, possibly fired by the firm's owner, Facebook.

Oculus has been keen to reassure everyone that Iribe's departure doesn't change the company's ambitious plans - the standalone Oculus Quest device and a new version of the Rift headset are on the slate, while an even more ambitious roadmap was hinted at in keynotes at the Oculus Connect developer conference last month. On the surface at least, Facebook still believes firmly in its VR efforts. Former Id Software legend John Carmack is now to some degree the public face of Oculus (alongside fellow Id alumni Michael Abrash) and while his statement on his own plans at the firm ("I do intend to stay at Facebook past the launch of Oculus Quest") wasn't exactly the most committed and confident response to Iribe's departure, it was pretty much the most typically John Carmack response imaginable and likely isn't worth reading too much into beyond its plainly-stated facts.

"The VR boom may be tapering off, and the AR boom may still be waiting for ignition but there's been enormous value in the work of the past few years"

The thing about Facebook's commitment to VR is that intent matters, and it's not entirely clear what Facebook's intent is here. Mark Zuckerberg clearly has some personal affection for VR as a concept and sees potential in the field, but whether he sees VR as a technology whose moment is imminent or as a long-term bet on a sector that will be important years down the line isn't clear.

That's an important distinction, because for all that new VR headsets are still being developed and progressing apace, the market for VR feels rather stalled just now. After years of saying that this year, or next year, would finally be the year when VR broke through into the mass market, is it not time to start wondering if this iteration of VR technology isn't actually going to make that leap?

Plenty of people are already wondering that, as it happens. CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson put it most bluntly when he stated last week that the VR market had ended up being too small to build a business on (CCP was an early darling of VR evangelists but exited the sector a year ago).

"We expected VR to be two or three times as big as it was," he told Destructoid; a harsh assessment but one that tracks with the experiences of many other larger developers who have dipped their toes in the space.

Brendan Iribe's departure from Oculus means both founders are now gone, which has raised questions about Facebook's plans for virtual reality

Brendan Iribe's departure from Oculus means both founders are now gone, which has raised questions about Facebook's plans for virtual reality

What actually is the VR market right now? It's fragmented, for a start. On the PC end of things, where the headset technology is most advanced, the small installed base of expensive VR hardware has become little more then a playground for indie experimentation - which is awesome in many ways, but doesn't actually constitute a commercial market that (many) people can make a living from.

Then you've got Sony doing its own thing with PSVR, which is certainly a market of sorts but not a particularly big one, and one that's honestly lacked a genuinely jaw-dropping essential game since Resident Evil 7 almost two years ago.

"VR this time out was good enough in some senses, but there's another technological breakthrough required before this sector actually becomes more than a novelty"

Finally you have the "toy" VR market - which ranges from an assortment of daft-looking things you strap to your face and stick a mobile phone into up to the altogether more accomplished Oculus Go standalone headset, all of which are largely designed for short throwaway experiences, 3D videos and the likes. That's actually a pretty big market, by all accounts - it's just not one that's particularly relevant to most game creators and smacks of disposable plastic novelty rather than being a sustainable new form of entertainment.

Then there's AR, or "Mixed Reality", which is a leap that we've all been waiting for. I have no doubt that AR is a much bigger potential market than VR, just as I have no doubt that VR is eventually going to be a major form of consumer entertainment - but for now, the potential for rapid advances in AR seem to have been oversold. Magic Leap has done this sector few favours; having talked about changing the world for years, it eventually unveiled a hilariously dorky set of googles that aren't functionally much of an improvement over Microsoft's rather more sensibly marketed Hololens but try to compensate for it with pie in the sky rambling about world-changing potential at some nebulous point in the future. AR will get there, but it's hard not to feel a mixture of disappointment and I-told-you-so at the realisation that the great jump into the future has turned out to be just another stumbling step down a long path.

The VR boom may be tapering off, and the AR boom may still be waiting for ignition - waiting for several years, most likely - but there's been enormous value in the work of the past few years. Not commercial value, as such; some people became very wealthy from acquisitions and so on, but I'm not sure anyone can legitimately say they've made truly serious money, "this is a valid market" kind of money, from selling VR to consumers.

Magic Leap's mixed reality headset arguably has a greater chance of becoming a mass market device than bulky virtual reality offerings

Magic Leap's mixed reality headset arguably has a greater chance of becoming a mass market device than bulky virtual reality offerings

Rather, the value is in everything that's been learned, which encompasses a host of important and interesting things. We know now that the tech is there to produce convincing images properly and developers have learned a ton about how to make VR actually work without making people sick, disoriented or confused. We've even seen some applications both in games and elsewhere that really make sense for the tech. When VR finally steps up and is ready to be a serious consumer entertainment platform, the knowledge and technology created in the past few years will be the foundation of everything that comes next.

The sense that this point really is a few years off, however, is impossible to ignore. VR this time out was good enough in some senses, but not remotely good enough in others; there's another technological breakthrough required before this sector actually becomes more than a novelty. The headsets themselves are a huge part of the problem - even the best-designed and lightest of them are too bulky and restrictive. No matter how much you spend on a headset you end up constantly adjusting and fiddling to get it right - not just once, but every time you put the damned thing on.

Moreover, you're constantly aware of this large, relatively heavy object on your head. Losing the wires helps a lot - it's not surprising that Carmack seems far more focused on the potential exposed by Oculus Go and his hopes for Oculus Quest than on whatever future update to Rift comes along. Even those devices, though, simply aren't what a consumer level VR headset needs to be - slip on, slip off, and damned near forget you're wearing it while you interact with the world.

Until we can get to the point where VR headsets are less like cumbersome helmets and more like sleek goggles - a casual ski mask rather than something that looks (and feels) like a bulky medical device on your face - I'm not sure consumers are ever going to get past that. With our existing technology, that isn't possible. It will be some day; perhaps that's only a few years down the line (waveguide technology is fascinating but still very early, for example) or perhaps it's another decade off, and by the time VR hype builds again the late-2010s VR boom will be remembered much as we recalled the Virtual Boy when Oculus first broke into the market.

When we do get there, however, whenever that may be, the knowledge and understanding gained from the recent VR boom is going to be invaluable to making the experiences that really sell a platform that's finally reached the right stage of maturity for the mass market.

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Latest comments (5)

Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University24 days ago
Been a VR non-believer since the hype train took off. Seemed obvious this was another 3d. And was going to die out after the initial wow factor wore off.

Great tech demo. But not something you want to do day in and day out.

And the elephant in the room during the hype was today's games just don't translate into VR. You can't run around using an analog stick in VR.

What do they do instead? You teleport from place to place. So much for virtual reality.

Then of course the entire practical side of it was never there. And the visuals were always uncomfortable to most and not that pleasing to the eye.

Also I think lost amid the hype was how Wii-like a lot of the experiences were. Pick up stuff, aim at stuff like you're holding a real gun, swat at stuff like you're killing a fly with a flyswatter, paint something like you have a paintbrush in your hand. That was 2006. WiiSports and WiiPlay. It wasn't as novel as made out to be. The 360 visuals didn't do much for many of those experiences.

And like a roller coaster at an amusement park, most get their fill after a ride or two. YOu don't ride the roller coaster day in and day out. That's the market as a whole.

Last no one was going to make a AAA game for an expensive platform with a low install base. I mean the Wii U had 13 million install base and Nintendo couldn't get 1 western 3rd party to make an exclusive game for it after day one. What chance did VR have with a lesser install base and a platform that costs way more money?

The unpractical side for the consumer was not seeing your surroundings while gaming. Not being able to eat a snack or take a drink at least not easily. Not hearing the doorbell or seeing friends next to you. And then the space requirements. I think the hype took the consumer experience we're been accustomed to for granted sorta speak.

Oh and 3d and how it was dying out was never talked about much. People didn't even want to strap on simple glasses to watch 3d. And the 3d I saw was annoying enough visually to not want it day in and day out. I mean I got excited about Avatar because it was made for 3d and I hadn't done 3d in a decade but after that I was good. I think that attitude was pretty typical of the average consumer. The coolness wears off quick and then the visual quality isn't as good in 3d. Since VR had 3d it brought along that same baggage.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 26th October 2018 7:23pm

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Alex Barnfield Lead Engineer, 17-BIT23 days ago
"And the elephant in the room during the hype was today's games just don't translate into VR. You can't run around using an analog stick in VR."

Most of my favorite VR games involve doing exactly that.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 23 days ago
Just because gaming/consumer VR has failed to take off, doesn't mean VR has failed in other sectors.

Microsoft seem to be the only ones to understand this. I can only assume they looked at VR and saw that a). the hardware was nowhere near consumer ready, and b). all the really powerful use cases were B2B. And so decided to keep their AR efforts strictly enterprise focused.

Whereas all the other players in the field seem to view VR an/or AR as a potential next iPhone. A gamble worth taking just in case it's the next big thing.

What's telling is that desktop computing also started off as B2B before making its way into people's homes. Games were not the killer app for those devices. And I think it'll be the same story for AR headsets.

My worry is we've only learned technical details from VR. For me, the wider lesson is that we can't just shoehorn existing game design and philosophy onto these devices. VR posed the challenge of making games where you can't really move around. But instead of embracing that, 95% of devs spent their time trying to find work-arounds.

AR headsets will take away developers' control of lighting, of the environment, and of consistent art style. Your sci-fi shooter is going to be a non-starter.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 22 days ago
In terms of VR, either graphic cards are the bottleneck for gaming, or content is the bottleneck for movie and sports entertainment. Both are things neither Valve nor Facebook can solve on their own. Releasing a 2D card game as their next big mainstream attraction speaks volumes about what Valve thinks about VR at this point.

Heck, they even struggle to get devices into stores in such a fashion that they look appealing. They are a box in the corner and not even a small stack of games next to it. That is going to generate as many sales as cars stored in a flooded basement of an abandoned mall. There you have Facebook, a company built on seeling ads and they cannot even direct people interested in VR to the closest store and have a good experience trying out the technology.

Do not get me started on AR. Sufficient to say, AR glasses at this point achieve nothing of value that couldn't be achieved by holding up a phone. Especially, but not limited to, repairing bicycles, not getting lost, or getting a strained neck from staring at your coffee table for too long. Sit upright and pick up the coffee table and now what? You are still the crazy one, even though your neck is fine AND you are training your arms while playing a game; probably with your tongue.
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Eyal Teler Programmer 19 days ago
(Sorry for the late response, came here from the Palmer Luckey article.)

I agree and disagree with James Coote about VR game design. It's true that designs will have to be re-thought for VR games to be truly successful, but I completely disagree about these game having to have a stationary viewpoint. VR is cool when you're stuck in one place, but truly amazing when you can move around. Sure, that's a tough problem to crack, but I wouldn't want devs to embrace that idea that VR has to have the player stranded in place. That would really make it little more than a gimmick.

As for the issue in general, I feel that there are two separate issue. One is VR headsets, how they feel, what they can do, and so on. The other is the content. In this respect games are the most problematic, both from a design point and from a technical requirements point. Personally I think that 360/180 videos would be more of a draw to most people, but they would require a higher resolution for both the headset and the videos to have any real success.
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