VR has a problem, and nobody has solved it

By Will Brown

I was ten years old when Google Glass was announced. I watched the concept videos and advertisements with astonishment at the futuristic technology on display. But the world evidently was not ready for Google Glass: it sold poorly, was heavily criticised, and was discontinued in 2015 – less than a year after it was publicly released. Google Glass ultimately went nowhere.

Except it didn’t. Google Glass was relaunched as the Enterprise Edition in 2017. Redesigned specifically for businesses, the Enterprise Edition provided easy access to information for employees – such as those working in manufacturing or logistics. It was not a best-seller, but it wasn’t meant to be. Although the Enterprise Edition is now being discontinued, it illustrated a key point: the user base for smart glasses is not necessarily the general public.

This is the crux of the problem: nobody is sure what virtual/augmented reality is best suited for. Is it the next level of video gaming? The perfect productivity tool? The ultimate immersive experience for media? Nobody is sure, but it seems that most of the major players in VR are focusing on two areas: businesses and gamers.

It is undoubtedly businesses that Apple are targeting. Recently announced at their Worldwide Developers Conference, the Vision Pro has prompted much discussion – particularly around its price tag of US$3,499. This might seem extortionate, but those familiar with Apple’s naming conventions recognise that this headset is not targeted at the masses. Take, for example, the Mac Pro: a computer designed for professionals that need significant computing power that costs $7,199.00 at its cheapest.

Whilst this convention is not universal (the AirPods Pro, whilst expensive, are not as extortionate), the decision to target the Vision Pro in the same market demonstrates where Apple are expecting this device to be popular. Adverts for the Vision Pro focus on managing spreadsheets, not saving the world.

It is similarly businesses that are being targeted by the other major player in virtual/augmented reality: Meta. The Meta Quest 2 (formerly Oculus) has placed a significant focus on the possibility for meetings and human interaction, which ties nicely in the company’s consistent attempts to make the Metaverse a thing. But Meta are also targeting gamers, a market that currently untouched by Apple’s Vision Pro.

Gaming and VR has had a complicated relationship. It has been the ‘next big thing’ for over a decade now, promising to revolutionise the industry and ultimately barely scratching the sides. It was hailed as a major innovation, and expected that we would soon be exclusively playing in virtual reality. We might have countless VR headsets now, ranging from the VIVE to the PSVR, but VR gaming ultimately remains little more than a gimmick. None of the major developers are making games for it, and so virtual reality continues to exist primarily to play either Beat Saber or yet another rerelease of Skyrim.

So where does virtual reality go from here? I think Apple’s involvement represents a landmark shift in the landscape, but I’m still not certain it is going to go mainstream for some time now. It will undoubtedly be picked up by the die-hard tech fans, but I think that the problem of utility remains.

You could work on your spreadsheets in a virtual environment, but you’re ultimately doing the same thing you were doing on your laptop. You could recreate a cinema experience to watch a film, but is it all that different to watching it on your TV? You can have a meeting in a virtual room with avatars, but it’s probably simpler to just set up a Zoom meeting. With a US$3,499 price tag, these are the sort of questions that people are going to be asking.

This isn’t to say that I think VR is useless. I’m excited about VR, and the tech enthusiast in me is excited to see what happens with the technology. Even if it doesn’t go mainstream just yet, there will nevertheless be interesting developments and exciting breakthroughs. Whilst the Vision Pro might be targeted towards the professionals for now, but I would not be surprised if we saw a stripped back version of the Vision Pro that was kinder on the bank account after a few years. It gives time for users, developers, and Apple to identify what works about virtual/ augmented reality and to work to accommodate that. Once that process is complete, I think we will be on a path towards smart glasses that offer genuine utility. I would not be surprised if smart glasses c a m e to replace the smartphone in a decade’s time.

Image: Pexels via Pixabay

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