While there are many plausible arguments that support the belief VR will have a bright future, there’s also growing evidence that VR’s inevitable success isn’t so inevitable.
The most recent evidence: Facebook, which purchased VR headset maker Oculus for $2bn, is shuttering nearly half of its 500 Oculus pop-ups in Best Buy stores around the US. The apparent reason? Lackluster demand.
While an Oculus spokesperson said the closures are due to “seasonal changes” and that the company is “prioritizing demos at hundreds of Best Buy locations in larger markets,” multiple sources who worked as “Oculus Ambassadors” told Business Insider that demand all but dried up following the holidays.
According to Business Insider, sources stated “at most, they would sell a few Oculus headsets per week during the holiday season, and that foot traffic to their pop-ups decreased drastically after Christmas.”
One source stated, “There’d be some days where I wouldn’t give a demo at all because people didn’t want to.”
It’s understandable that sales of the Oculus Rift VR headset would be tepid – it is, after all, a $600 piece of equipment. But the reported lack of interest in free demos suggests that VR’s mainstream appeal is nowhere near what one might assume it to be given the amount of attention lavished on VR by companies like Facebook, as well as the tech press.
According to SuperData Research, sales of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets in 2016 numbered in the hundreds of thousands, far less than the millions some predicted. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including the high cost of headsets, a lack of compelling content, and “virtual reality sickness,” which often mimics the symptoms of motion sickness.
Even many VR proponents acknowledge that the technology has a way to go before it will be in a position to deliver on its supposed mainstream potential.
Too much, too fast?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is one of VR’s biggest believers, and plans to put his money where his mouth is by investing billions more in VR in the coming years. He recently called VR a “10-year thing” and stated that there was probably no ability to accelerate the technology and its adoption so that it becomes, say, a five-year thing.
“It’s important to also recognize that this will grow slowly, like computers and mobile phones when they first arrived. So we’re committed to Oculus and virtual reality for the long term,” he stated.
Of course, it’s worth considering that expectations for computers and mobile phones were initially quite low. In 1943, Thomas Watson, the president of IBM, stated, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” In 1977, Ken Olsen, the founder of DEC, stated, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Expectations for VR, on the other hand, are exceedingly high despite the fact that even its staunchest promoters admit that the technology is nowhere near where they think it needs to be to penetrate the mainstream the way computers and mobile phones have.
The risk: the promoters are wrong, and even if and when the technology is supposedly good enough, it won’t find the consumer acceptance they thought it would.
With that in mind, it’s not so extreme to argue that, at least for the time being, the VR craze is indeed mostly hype. That the expectations are too far ahead of the reality.
And that even if VR eventually lives up to those expectations a decade or more from now, most companies have little reason to prioritize their experiments and investments in VR given the abundance of opportunities that are far more accessible and likely to bear fruit in the near term.