What’s Holding Back VR?

Despite major publicity and significant investments in virtual reality platforms, the prevalence of VR systems has a long way to go.

(Image credit: Getty Images via GE Reports)
(Image credit: Getty Images via GE Reports)

Over the past few years virtual reality has barreled into pop culture like a freight train — or, to be precise, a Lumiere Brothers’ train.  

The brothers are best known for their 1890s film of a train pulling into a station. This grainy, 50-second film, considered the first motion picture, shattered the audience’s perception of reality.

It’s hard to imagine, but for a stunned group of spectators over 100 years ago, they had never experienced anything like it. Fast forward to the present day. Does any of this sound familiar?  

Virtual reality is still in its infancy: its Lumiere Brothers moment. Those who have tried it walk away passionate evangelists. Those who have not couldn’t possibly understand without seeing it themselves. Just like film at the turn of the century, consumer adoption for virtual reality still has a long road ahead.

Here are a few sobering numbers. Conservative estimates of consumer headsets sold to date put total devices somewhere around 2.3 million units. Compare that to the approximately 230 million iPhone/Android devices sold last year in the U.S alone.

Narrowing our focus to users of SteamVR, a content distribution platform favored by core VR audiences. We find less than 6 percent of all Steam content is built for virtual reality and less than 0.2 percent of Steam users own a Vive, the Steam-compatible headset produced by HTC. Suddenly it becomes quite clear just how early we are in this adoption cycle.

Despite almost insignificant market size, the technology is striking. This isn’t overly enthusiastic VR speak, but rather insight gained from providing demos to nearly a thousand people. In all this time I can count on one hand the number of disappointed customers.

Not only is it good, it’s evolving quickly. Consumers may be on the way, but innovators and entrepreneurs are proliferating technology in a mad dash of space race proportions. Each week new betas are being released for everything from creative tools, publishing platforms, analytics, collaboration, advertising and more. And those are just products designed to support the VR industry.

(Image credit: Getty Images via GE Reports)(Image credit: Getty Images via GE Reports)

This list doesn’t even begin to touch on the different companies exploring virtual reality opportunities in healthcare, education, communication and broadcasting, to name a few. These firms are solving real problems like PTSD therapy and curing phobias — challenges previously unaddressable through older mediums. VR has applications far beyond the entertainment role of which it’s commonly typecast.   

Then what’s holding the industry back?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, price is still a major factor. While high-end machines have shown increases in affordability, the $1,400 to $1,600 minimum price tag still represents a significant barrier to entry for anyone beyond early adopters. Price creates a challenge, because it’s hard for VR to become more popular when most people have no practical means to access it.  

Content is another commonly stated, although overemphasized, threat to consumer adoption. There is not a VR application valuable enough to warrant a significant investment from a casual consumer. However, in a classic Catch-22, there isn’t likely to be such an application until we reach a critical mass of monthly active users.

One less often cited reason is talent. Nearly all virtual reality is being produced with only a few different game engines. These are highly specialized tools used for game development. While readily accessible, they are not without learning curves. That leaves seasoned game developers most familiar with the tools, and they are in short supply.

Fortunately for those of us betting the farm on this industry, these are solvable problems simply requiring time — how much is anyone’s guess. I don’t mean to trivialize this. Many VR companies will fail during the winter ahead. The Lumiere Brothers passed away long before there were cinematic experiences taking place in every home. However, one thing is certain: this latest computing revolution will happen faster than previous cycles. Such is the nature of technology. Those of us passionate about virtual reality now will not have to wait but a small fraction of the time the Lumiere Brothers endured to see their creation enjoyed by the masses. Do not turn back now.

Christian Talmage is a VR consultant who was previously Design Director of River Studios, a creative studio for VR experiences. 

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