The Future of Virtual Reality: Gauging the Near-Future Impact

By Paul Mealy

As the dust has settled on the first generation of VR, the VR hype, while perhaps not totally dead, has died down to a dull murmur. And that is a good thing for VR. In the tech world, hype comes easily. Tech products and perhaps entire tech industries have been propped up based on hype alone. These products burn brightly for a short time, and often they’re reduced to ashes just as quickly.

Hype can affect both good and bad products. The Segway and Google Glass both experienced so much hype ahead of their release to the public that it’s doubtful any product could have satiated the hype built around them. No less a tech authority than Apple CEO Steve Jobs had claimed about the Segway ahead of its launch, “If enough people see the machine, you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It’ll just happen.”

Comparing VR to those products may be worrisome for some people. After all, the Segway didn’t achieve anywhere near the expected level of adoption. And Google Glass struggled to gain adopters and was eventually taken off the market for retooling. Similar to both the Segway and Google Glass, VR has attracted praise from tech visionaries, touting the “future potential” of the product, regardless of the technology’s present state. But that’s where the similarities end.

With the hype around VR dying down, what you’re left with is actual, proven results and usage of a product. Rather than the promises of what a product could be, you begin to see what a product actually is. And although VR is not currently the Star Trek holodeck many may have hoped it would immediately become, it’s still an incredible product, even more so considering we’re still only experiencing the first generation of devices.

In the near future, you can expect likely more of the same from VR’s advances. So far, VR’s biggest gains in traction have relied on the entertainment and gaming industries. But many industries have begun to see VR’s potential and are working on adopting VR for their own uses. Education, healthcare, and industrial uses have all begun to emerge, pushing VR use cases further into the limelight. These industries and more will continue their adoption as VR’s quality improves and its technology becomes less costly.

Location-based experiences are emerging as a surprising introduction to VR for many users. Some envision the rise of VR to mean you may no longer need to leave your house but can experience everything virtually! Instead, mass consumers have thus far hesitated to go all in on purchasing the most immersive VR hardware for their homes, content for the time being to pay to experience cutting-edge VR onsite elsewhere. Likely, this trend will continue for the next few years, as location-based experiences will find ways to outperform what a user may be able to replicate at home.

Manufacturers focusing on more mobile, standalone VR headsets point to consumers wanting a portable, low-cost device, though it may not necessarily be the most powerful or immersive. There will, of course, always be a group of consumers pushing for the most cutting-edge experiences possible, and there will be devices built for that group as well.

However, the mid-tier standalone headsets appear to be where manufacturers are turning their main focus. It will be interesting to see if this push toward standalone devices continues. If Moore’s Law holds, our mobile devices might soon become powerful enough to run very immersive VR experiences on their own. With the next generation’s focus on standalone headsets, however, it appears the days of cellphone-based VR, while currently the most popular way of experiencing VR, could be numbered in favor of standalone devices.

Moore’s Law is an observation that was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. He noted that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubled nearly every two years. In general terms, it predicts that the processing power of computers will double every two years. This was more applicable in the past and may not exactly hold true today, but it’s still considered a rule of thumb.

In the end, the customer may not always be right, but they’ll always be the customer. Manufacturers may be able to lead them to water, but they can’t make them drink. Consumers will be the ones driving adoption. The most telling factor of where VR will likely be concentrated in the near future will be the adoption rate of the second-generation of VR devices. If it’s focused around mid-tier headsets, expect developers making applications to reflect that same focus, with more of an emphasis on mid-tier consumable experiences.

Expanding the timeline out for far-future predictions, it’s easy to imagine a form factor that merges both VR and AR into a single device. Such a device could turn fully opaque and closed off to display VR experiences or turn transparent with overlays to allow AR experiences. It would be small enough to be portable, yet powerful enough to deliver an amazing graphic experience. That device is just a pipe dream for now, but so were immersive consumer VR headsets only five years ago. And look where we are today.

For content creators and many consumers, this second generation of devices is the perfect time to enter the market. VR headsets haven’t reached their ultimate potential, but they already offer an incredible experience for consumers. Jumping in now offers distinct advantages for both creators and customers. Creators will still be in the market early enough to experiment and make the inevitable missteps and course corrections, solidifying their product before the true mass consumer wave occurs. Consumers will be in the market late enough that many of the first-generation issues will have been ironed out and addressed, and with a healthy marketplace of hardware and software in place, driven by the first-generation devices.