Why virtual reality won't go the same way as 3DTV

In 1995 Nintendo introduced the Virtual Boy, one of its greatest commercial failures. Poor third-party support, poor graphics, and misleading marketing led to the failure of the first gaming VR headset. But over twenty years later, we have finally reached a point where the technology has caught up with the imagination and creativity of its developers, and we are now on the crest of a massive, industry-changing wave of innovation.

We do need to be careful about what reporters say – many tech writers describe VR as an incredible experience, but they were usually playing on GTX Titans. Certain genres would not work well either – a 2D platformer would hardly be entertaining for the user, nor would an FPS where the neck would constantly need to be turned. Nor would a Sonic-like game work either, as the speed will likely nauseate users on their first try – an example of the ‘meathook effect’ when a user does not have full control of its environment. But the future is bright, and there are so many games which use the tech in creative ways.

One area I was worried about was the software detrimental cycle, illustrated below:

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This is not a new concept within the gaming industry, but one which is relevant for VR. If there is not enough hardware in the market, or enough killer apps for the headset itself, then it starts a cycle where not enough users are buying the hardware. If not enough users are buying the hardware, then developers are less tempted to develop the software. And if there is not enough software, then consumers are less tempted to purchase the hardware – why buy a platform with little support? This was what happened to both the Wii U and PS Vita – both innovative and interesting consoles, but they entered the cycle where developers could not develop for the hardware because there were not enough customers, and customers did not buy enough hardware because there wasn’t enough software.

The crucial question is, will VR enter this cycle? My answer would be no. Deloitte published an interesting paper on VR and titled it the ‘$1 billion niche’ – there are too many developers and money invested in the market to fail now. Even if there were low sales in the first year, there is enough money in the industry for the weaker companies to fall out while the stronger last the year to see further adoption of the hardware. This year’s Mobile World Congress is an excellent example of this, with the news focusing on VR rather than mobile.

However we have seen something like this before. 3DTVs saw a large marketing push by large brands and were predicted to be the next step in technology for TVs – but the adoption was low. Many tech commenters say that VR will go the same way – a large push by big brands, followed by silence as consumers were unwilling to purchase the expensive hardware. My argument is that VR is nothing like 3DTVs. 3DTV is a gimmick which does not add much to the cinematic experience, save for movies with 3D in mind. VR is different in that it introduces whole new experiences to its users, as well as a heightened level of interactivity. VR is more a new step rather than a next step.

There is also no doubt that YouTube will be influential for VR. During the seventh generation of consoles Youtube has grown in tandem with the gaming market, as consumers are now moving towards YouTube for reviews and first impressions rather than traditional news outlets. The trend will likely continue as key influencers like Totalbiscuit, Markiplier and Pewdiepie use the software for themselves and present them to the public. I have a personal fear however – their core demographic are young children and teens who do not earn their own income, so much of their core audience is unable to purchase the headsets. That said, their audiences have aged and matured over the years and I suspect 2017 will be the a year where the Pewdiepie fan can watch a video and purchase it with their own money.

I do have another fear though. Seeing the vast array of headsets reminds me of the nightmare of Android development – how there are many different kinds of Android and developing for them all is difficult. Developing for all the VR headsets presents the same problem: Samsung Gear games would not work with Oculus, certain HTC Vive games with Oculus, and so on. If there were to be any killer apps for certain games, it is more likely that they will dominate one platform at the expense of another. This was what happened with the Wii U, as the architecture was too different from the current generation. Thus developers focused on the Playstation and Xbox which can both be developed on and released to maximise spread, while the Wii U was left to the side.

Ultimately, I think Bossa Studios and Coffee Stain Studios are ahead of the game when it comes to VR development. Bossa Studios added VR support for Surgeon Simulator, as did Coffee Stain Studios to Goat Simulator – both already released titles which were updated with added functionality. This meant that development for the software was more for experimentation and to gauge interest, rather than solely dedicating a new game to it. It is a cautious approach, but it means the companies can collect the data and work out where to go next with their ventures.

Thomas Ffiske is Associate Campaign Executive at Diffusion PR

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Wayne0216