Back in 2016, virtual reality was tipped to be the next big thing, set to offer consumers an exciting, immersive, and entirely addictive technology experience.

With high equipment costs and limited content, however, VR has remained a somewhat niche concept – adopted by gaming enthusiasts and (arguably) shunned by mainstream audiences.

Recent Amazon sales rank data suggests that it might not just be a case of slow adoption either. Rather, it highlights how VR sales could be on the decline, perhaps also indicating that the market is already dying out.

But is this really the case, and if so, how come? Here’s more on the Amazon rankings and what could be behind it all.

A potential saturation point

Thinknum tracked Amazon sales rank data for four major VR headsets, including those by Sony, Samsung, Facebook, and HTC. Before we go on, it’s important to note that Amazon sales ranking refers to how a product is selling compared to other products in the same category on the site.

Thinknum states that sales rankings have declined for all headsets across multiple categories.

The Skyrim bundle for Sony’s Playstation VR has been on the decline since February this year, going from number 28 in its category to 100.

playstation vr sales rank

HTC’s Vive and Facebook’s Oculus have also both declined since May. Meanwhile, Samsung’s Gear VR appears to have never fully gained traction, with sales only briefly spiking on release before steadily shifting downwards.

samsung gear VR sales rank

It’s been suggested that Thinknum’s analysis doesn’t give an overall or fair picture of the headset market. What about other Playstation VR models, for example, or the cheaper version of Oculus? Amazon sales data does not take into consideration overall units sold, meaning it’s not an objective form of data.

That being said, it is impossible to ignore the significant downward trend in rankings for the headsets in question. Amazon is also one of the biggest sellers of technology online, meaning product popularity is certainly a valuable metric.

Furthermore, other reports suggest a similar market picture. IABM recently stated that virtual reality is not a priority for end-users, with the majority investing in artificial intelligence and ultra-high definition programming instead. Similarly, the IDC also reported that worldwide shipments of augmented reality and virtual reality headsets were down 30.5% year on year in Q1 2018.

IDC does suggest that there are reasons behind this decline, one being that that vendors have stopped bundling headsets in for free with smartphones – a common practice throughout 2017.

But while this might be true, the decline could also indicate that VR has reached an early saturation point, with interested consumers having no need to re-purchase or own more than one headset.

Will time tell?

With the recent launch of Oculus Go (a new standalone headset), IDC predicts that the AR and VR headset market will return to growth this year, ultimately reaching 65.9 million units by 2022.

This could indeed be the case, as it makes sense that early VR adopters have been waiting for second generation headsets. Those interested in the technology are likely to have already invested, so what would have been the point in buying another (or similar) headset before now?

However, this does not explain why the technology has failed to reach a wider market, and to consumers who might have – at one point or another – considered investing. Sales of VR headsets at their highest still come far below the numbers generated by other mainstream forms of technology.

So what has prevented VR from appealing to the mainstream?

Price has undoubtedly been a contributing factor, with the most sophisticated headsets starting from at least £300 – and that’s not taking into consideration the required gaming systems and software on top. According to a survey by Greenlight Digital, 38% of respondents cited hardware cost as the main thing preventing them from buying a headset.

There are lower-priced headsets – ones that work with smartphones rather than PC’s or gaming consoles – however they still aren’t cheap considering the additional costs. On the other end of the spectrum, the lowest price headsets such as Google Cardboard offer a basic and rather disappointing experience.

Perhaps the Oculus Go, a high-end headset which requires no PC or smartphone, will tempt more people into giving it a go. But again, this all depends on how good the experience actually is.

Back to reality

This brings us on to another potential reason why interest in the technology has seemingly tailed off: the notion that it is simply not superior enough to warrant sustained or habitual use.

Much like a 3D movie, the initial experience might be exciting enough to be enjoyable, however, its over-bearing nature (which can leave some with motion sickness) means that most simply cannot use VR for long periods at a time.

This means that even the biggest VR enthusiasts might revert to standard gaming, making VR seem more of a gimmick or an ad-hoc activity rather than something to really invest in. In this context, the investment does seem hard to justify.

Another limitation is in the kind of experience that VR offers, with most commercial examples coming in the form of VR games – which is quite a niche category in its own right. What’s more, it’s been suggested that due to the high-cost of headsets (and the associated consumer reluctance) the external funding that helps drive game development has dwindled.

Ultimately, this means that the market is stuck in a vicious cycle, without the confidence or certainty needed to break through its current limitations.

We have seen examples of VR being incorporated into the mainstream. For example, this year, the BBC allowed users to watch all 33 World Cup games in VR via its corresponding app.

According to reports, the app was downloaded 325,000 times. This might sound like a significant amount, but in comparison to the millions that tuned in per game on terrestrial TV or iPlayer, it’s actually a rather meagre figure – not exactly evidence of the ‘next big thing’ it was once predicted to be.

Will VR find a new fanbase?

It’s hard to imagine that usage of virtual reality will catch up with its closest incarnation – augmented reality. As the popularity of endless beauty and gaming AR apps show, consumers can’t get enough of technology that is simple, valuable, and – most importantly of all – accessible.

Until there is a bigger pool of quality content (outside of gaming) to choose from, and VR headsets are more affordable, it’s unlikely that we’ll see sales skyrocket any time soon.

That being said, with the technology itself continually improving, it might only take a single unmissable app to make the masses catch on. Once again, we await to find out.

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