by Davis Rhodes
Technology is advanced by the “Next Big Thing.” HDTV, iPods, iPhones etc. Next Big Things disrupt the market and force competitors to adapt and emulate. But what happens to the Next Big Things that never actually make it big? Sony MiniDiscs, 3D TVs, Google Glass — each entered popular culture with massive expectations and fell short. They never made it past the early adopters stage of the technology adoption lifecycle. Market viability is time-sensitive. Consumers will only wait so long for your product to advance from concept to commercial. For virtual reality, it’s now or never.
Virtual reality and its mainstream adoption has been stuck in purgatory for half a decade. Adoption has hit a snag somewhere in-between innovators and early adopters. “The Year of VR” has been declared over, and over, and over again. 2016 was the year tech giants like Sony and Samsung launched VR headsets. For the first time, VR headsets were being embraced by well-known brands. We saw augmented reality, or AR, introduce itself to the mainstream through Pokemon Go. In 2017, Facebook launched its augmented reality platform.
Yet 2018 has arrived, and still no “must-have” game or feature for VR exists to entice consumers. Software and game development on the platforms has been painfully slow. After Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, analysts expected it to become the industry leader and bring AAA game developers to embrace VR. In reality, Oculus sold less than half as many headsets as Sony in 2017. International Data Forecasts put headset sales at over 13 million units for 2017, however less than a fifth of sales can be attributed to the “high-end” headsets made by Oculus, Sony and HTC.
The segmentation of platforms and lack of cross-compatibility has made it difficult for game developers to confidently invest capital in VR. Developers like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts are hesitant to embrace VR until a clear headset leader has been established. Why invest millions into game development for the Oculus Rift when in two years the HTC Vive could have the market cornered? That’s where the catch 22 occurs; big game developers are waiting for an established platform, and platform developers need a AAA game to establish themselves. Who will blink first?
Messaging is another big problem for VR. Consumer perception of the technology is all over the place. Virtual reality offerings range from £2 Google Cardboard viewers to £600 HTC Vive headsets. High price points prevent many from ever experiencing “true” VR. Gamers, the target market for high-end headsets, often cannot justify spending £600 for a product without major gaming titles. Cheap, low-tech “viewers,” as they’re known, like Cardboard offer a rudimentary glimpse into the capabilities of VR. They’re good for experiencing panoramic video, but there is no way to interact with the virtual world you’re seeing. One way companies are introducing consumers to high-end VR experiences is through public exhibitions of the technology. It’s a way for people to get a taste of the experience without having to part with much money.
It’s extremely challenging to effectively advertise an experiential product — exacerbated by the fact that few beyond tech insiders have had access to the product, limiting the potential for word of mouth and viral sharing.
The challenge, and solution for the industry: get people in headsets, and the product will sell itself.