Handheld Technology

VR at the virtual crossroads: which way next?

Virtual reality is one of many fields that give the lie to the notion of technology as a fast-moving sector where disruptive change takes place at the speed of light. The term in its modern meaning dates back to the 1970s and implementations dating back decades would be recognisable today to the kids salivating over the prospect of an Oculus Rift.

But here comes VR in what looks very like a moment of truth with Oculus shipping at the end of this month to customers who pre-ordered, and Sony saying that its PlayStation VR will be available in October.

Will VR fulfil its promise? It’s worth looking at precedents to make an informed guess. So let’s examine other hyped technologies and what made them hits or misses.

A killer app. Technologies need software that people crave. In operating systems, DOS had Lotus 1-2-3, WordStar, WordPerfect and dBase while Windows had Microsoft Office, CorelDraw, Micrografx, Harvard Graphics. Oculus just named the games that will be available on debut and a large part of the success or otherwise of the product will be down to the desirability of those programs.

Pricing. Oculus isn’t cheap; Sony will undercut it but it’s not at all clear what will be the price point to hook buyers nor at what point there will be resistance. When Apple launched the iPhone the initial perception was that pricing might be too high but the product was so desirable that it sold in droves anyway. On the other hand there was such a price delta between desktop and laptop PCs that it took over a decade for the latter market to go mainstream. DAB radio also took ages to sell in volume because the early sets were way overpriced.

The value proposition. Is VR really just about games or could it be something much wider? AMD, for example, sees a role for VR in the future of news media. 3D printing has had plenty of attention but the reality is that not many of us can see much use in owning one and nobody has convinced us otherwise.

Quality. Will the first products from Oculus, Samsung, HTC, Sony and others live up to expectations or will they be a dampening disappointment because they are shoddily built or unreliable? The first digital cameras were terrible and the market took a long time to bounce back after that shoddy debut. The same may be happening today with fitness gadgets and other wearables.

Fragmentation. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of them all and creating a strong ecosystem behind one camp will be very tough with vendors going their own ways. Unix was hobbled by splinter movements while DVD prospered because warring factions settled for peace. In VCRs, one camp (BetaMax) was bested by another (VHS), leaving many of us out of pocket as the movie industry eventually settled for the leader.

VR has every chance of being a big success but a look back at the vagaries of emerging markets suggests it will take a while for us to pick the winners and losers.


Read more:

Wearable Tech Show: ‘Social’ VR network wants to end digital narcissism

Associated Press looks to VR for new chapter in journalism

Retail Tech Expo: Two holidays and Tesco shopping in Virtual Reality

VR vs. 360-degree video: Two perspectives

VR vs. 360-degree video: When YouTube moves immersive to ‘live’

Google's Tilt Brush: Finally, a magical VR experience

What does the Blippar deal mean for Augmented Reality?

Practical ways VR and gaming can be used to advance learning

2018 will be the year of VR

Virtual Reality 2016: Hyped but needing a dose of calm


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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