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Will virtual reality ever take off?

By Talia Klein Perez
 Getty /David Ramos
*Updated 2021
While virtual reality (VR) has long promised new innovations in both mainstream and technology circles, its decades-old existence and hype – including even changing humanitywasn’t living up to expectation. However, after a few quiet years, during which passion for virtual reality technology and investment seemingly cooled, VR has now made a comeback, thanks in large part to the pandemic and Facebook. While Facebook’s 2016 release of Oculus Rift never garnered much buzz, mostly because of its high price tag, its 2020 release of Oculus Quest 2, and it’s $299 price tag, changed the stakes. (The latest version was pre-ordered five times as much as its predecessor.) VR seems to have finally hit the mass market. In fact, sales of consumer VR headsets are forecast to jump to 69 million units in 2024 alone, up 60 million from 2020. So, has VR finally taken off, or is this just a blip that will fade away?
Here are three reasons why VR is taking off, and three reasons why it’s just a short-lived trend.


Three Reasons Why Virtual Reality Has Taken Off


It’s so compelling and useful

Although there have been a lot of obstacles to the success of mass-market adoption of VR, the immersive presence of the VR experience is so compelling that it will succeed – even in the mainstream. (After all, now you can climb Mt. Everest, swim with whales, or explore outer space, all with VR). VR is a totally different type of experience compared to any other viewing activity. At first, it was difficult for companies to sell it to consumers without helping them experience; in 2016, thousands of headsets were launched and sold with VR games for the first time, bringing the experience to millions of new users, helping to spread the word. Since then, the VR Awards have kept consumers abreast of the latest and the greatest innovations in VR, and not just for gamers.

Not to mention, as the pandemic has increased the number of remote workers, the sales of VR headsets have also increased. Companies are increasingly turning to VR, either for internal use or product development. VR used within businesses is predicted to jump from $829 million in 2018 to $4.26 billion in 2023, according to ARtillery Intelligence.


Competition is bringing down the price

In the past, the high costs of VR headsets and powerful computers to use with them has been one of the biggest drawbacks for consumers. But as more companies have entered the VR market, headset prices have gotten lower, with Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2, Sony Playstation VR and Google Cardboard leading the way, both price-wise and quality-wise. More competition means lower prices, higher adoption rates of VR and more programming.


It’s become part of our lives

Even before the pandemic, virtual shopping and augmented reality games were popular. For example, since its release in 2016, Pokemon Go has remained a worldwide hit (to the tune of $905M in player spending in 2019). VR and its lighter cousin, augmented reality (AR), have been permeating our daily lives for a while now. Sources say that the combined VR and AR markets were expected to reach $18.8 billion in 2020, up from $10.5 billion in 2019. Nowadays, amid the pandemic, VR has become vital technology for the survival of retail. Amidst lockdowns, furniture to clothing to jewelry stores have introduced AR tools enabling customers to shop and “try-on” products virtually. As we have become accustomed to interacting with virtual or augmented reality, we are seeing it in more aspects of our lives, beyond gamers.


Three Reasons Why Virtual Reality Is A Passing Phase


There may not be a big enough user base

VR has suffered from a vicious circle: without a large enough user base, it wasn’t worthwhile for developers to create specifically for VR. And without compelling software or apps driving VR headset sales, the user base was never able to grow larger. After the flurry of early adopter excitement dried up, sales for VR headsets slumped in 2018. Consumers questioned whether the timing was right to invest in the headsets, as the market was still small and there weren’t a lot of games being made for them. Back then, SuperData, a games-market research firm, predicted $5.1bn total revenue from VR software and hardware in 2016. In the end, total revenue worldwide only amounted to only $1.8bn. Even gamers weren’t interested.

While the VR scene has changed today, with VR headsets more affordable and the variety of games wider, the headsets may still be uncomfortable for many to wear for long-time play. Plus, outside of niche VR fans, most people do not have the applications needed to get the full experience, so headphones will be a single-purpose technology that won’t add much value or enticement for long-term use.


Is there trusted leadership in the market?

With each VR company releasing its own headset model, there may be a lack of consolidated market leadership. True, competition has brought down prices, enabling more people to be able to afford and enjoy VR. However, can the public trust big tech companies, like Facebook, which has had a history of questionable data security policies, to be the VR market leader in building hardware that will mean more intrusion into people’s daily lives through body-worn cameras?


The user experience – and health

Although VR is compelling and fun, VR headsets can be heavy and uncomfortable. Not to mention, extensive VR use (or overuse) can lead to physical side effects, such as carpel tunnel, stiff shoulders and headaches caused by eye strain. Other side effects can include motion sickness, blurred vision, nausea or queasiness. The bigger problem is that most research on the subject is still too inconclusive; the market is too new for there to be enough research into the long-term effects of VR use. This can make the public wary and concerned. And let’s not forget that few users have enough space at home to use a VR headset without tripping over the couch or walking into a wall.


The Bottom Line: VR is not just a Ready Player One type of immersive universe. It can include augmented reality, and 360-degree videos, both of which are increasingly present and successful. When you envision the future, do you see VR becoming a meaningful part of our culture, fulfilling all of its promises? Not everything is a success or failure. Many technologies have their own niche, which does not take away from their value.


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