The biggest problem holding VR back right now

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT), Samsung (SSNLF), Sony (SNE). Each of these massive tech companies sells or is working on its own virtual reality headset. And yet, do you have one? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “no.”

So what gives? If some of the biggest organizations on the planet are making a strong push into VR, why don’t more people have headsets in their own homes?

The answer? There are just not enough reasons to buy one … yet.

We need content for the masses

I’ve used nearly every virtual reality headset on the market. And while they’re all impressive — and equally capable of making you look like a giant goober while wearing them — none offers experiences the average person would want to dive into for hours at a time.

It’s not that they don’t have any interesting content. There are plenty of intriguing games and 360 videos, not to mention a good amount of VR porn, but nothing that has sparked the imaginations of the mass market enough to warrant shelling out anywhere from $100 to $500 for a headset.

Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen equates the current state of VR content to the dearth of high-definition content that existed in the early days of HD TVs.

“You have to have enough content so that you can appeal to a broad segment of the market,” Nguyen said.

“I don’t blame content producers or developers for that,” Nguyen explained. “I think they are on a good path, a good trajectory in terms of developing this new medium. This new medium meaning this new user interface for people.”

Feeling like you’re really there

Right from the start, video games and VR seemed like a match made in heaven. And while there are certainly a number of fun VR games out there, they’re still a bit clunky.

Take “Resident Evil 7” for Sony’s PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR. Moving around the environment in a circle requires you to both move your head and tap the PS4 controller’s joystick in the appropriate direction. But the joystick doesn’t move your character smoothly, instead you rotate a certain number of degrees, stop, then continue rotating like the second hand on a clock.

Other games like “Eve Valkyrie” look and play incredibly well in VR, but the movement of the space-based dogfighting simulator can make some people nauseous.

Nguyen says movie studios in particular have to focus on ensuring you feel like a part of the story. He cites an example of horror movies that could help guide you to frightening interactions or scenes, rather than letting you look around freely causing you to potentially miss the action.

Waiting for its iPhone moment

Despite the fact that more VR headsets continue to hit the market, sales of headsets are still dwarfed by the sale of devices such as smartphones.

According to Gartner, roughly 22 million VR headsets will be sold in 2017. That’s certainly a large number, but nowhere near the 366 million smartphones sold worldwide in Q2 2017 alone.

The problem with the current crop of headsets is that they’re still largely evolving in terms of their overall form factors. Oculus’ Rift and HTC’s Vive require heavy-duty gaming PCs and external sensors set up around your play area. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality PCs use internal sensors and need fewer cables, while Samsung and Google’s offerings use your smartphone to power their experiences. Different headsets also have different ways of interacting with content.

Nguyen says the VR industry is at a similar point that the smartphone market was stuck in prior to the launch of Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone. Before the company’s late founder and CEO Steve Jobs announced the handset and its touchscreen display, a number of smartphones relied on styluses and Windows-style operating systems.

Apple’s way of thinking quickly took over the marketplaces, and every smartphone and tablet on the planet use similar types of interfaces.

Currently, VR is largely focused on the kind of two-dimensional experiences carried over from the television and movie industry. Going forward, creators and manufacturers will need to develop their own means of taking advantage of this new medium that makes these headsets feel less like screens we strap to our faces and more like fully immersive experiences.

So while it might seem like VR is spinning its wheels, the truth is, the industry will eventually find its traction and make its way into your own home. It’s just a matter of time.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

 

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