Saturday, March 05, 2016

Virtual reality hitting the mainstream: The next $100 bet

Virtual reality is hot again, with dedicated hardware headsets launching from multiple manufacturers intended for general use.

The world is substantially different than the last time this happened. In particular, there's more computing power available in our smartphones than the most powerful graphics workstations had back in the 1990s. Google Cardboard and others take advantage of that, using a smartphone and little else for a quick-and-dirty virtual reality experience.

But, for a product to appeal to a broad market -- to get beyond early adopters with disposable income seeking to show something cool to friends a couple times -- it needs to survive the harsh judgement of busy people. It isn't enough for virtual reality on expensive dedicated hardware to mostly work. The experience will have to wow repeatedly at a price people like.

So, Daniel and I have another bet: "Virtual reality hardware (not counting cardboard) will not sell more than 10M units/year worldwide before March 2019." I'm saying it won't. Daniel says it will. Loser donates $100 to the winner's choice of charity.

Daniel already posted his side of the bet. In brief, he thinks three years will be enough time for someone to get it right.

I think that mainstream adoption of dedicated hardware for virtual reality requires breakthroughs in usability and price that are too difficult to achieve in the three year time frame. The experience just isn't good enough yet for it to be anything other than a toy for early adopters. Current virtual reality hardware is bulky, expensive, not fully immersive, and not addictive or compelling beyond the initial wow. I expect even the next generation will just be a niche market (low million units per year) until we see major developments on price, form factor, and quality of the experience.

There are several wild cards here. For example, it is possible that much cheaper units can be made to work. It's possible that someone discovers very carefully chosen environments and software tricks fool the brain into fully accepting the virtual reality, especially for gaming, increasing the appeal and making it a must-have experience for a lot of people. As unsavory as it is, pornography is often a wild card with new technology, potentially driving adoption in ways that can determine winners and losers. A breakthrough in display (such as retinal displays) might allow virtual reality hardware that is much cheaper and lighter. Business use is another unknown where virtual reality could provide a large cost savings over physical presence. I do think there are many ways in which I could lose this bet.

Like Daniel, I'll add some constraints to make my side of the bet even harder. I'd be surprised if dedicated virtual reality hardware sells more than 10M total over all three years. I'd also be surprised if virtual reality using smartphones (like Google Cardboard) goes beyond a toy, so, is used regularly by tens of millions for gaming, education, or virtual tourism.

And, like Daniel, I expect virtual reality to be big eventually, am frustrated by our current computing limitations, and think we should work to have much better from our computing devices today.

No comments: