OPINION: VR cannot steal the traditional market – it has to create a new one

Sitting in the cockpit of a spacecraft, trapped in an underwater cage surrounded by sharks or trapped in a dark house with a silent pursuer.

It’s not hard to conjure a list of experiences that when coupled with virtual reality will become almost magical. Anyone who has tried VR will tell you that it offers something that traditional games, or indeed any form of traditional media, simply cannot match. It’s certainly very exciting.

These experiences, whether it’s EVE Valkyrie or any of the as of yet unannounced or unconceived titles that are to come, are going to be what sells the technology to the increasingly hungry and affluent tech consumer.

But as much as many of the specialist press continue to enjoy and evangelise the potential VR revolution, many still look on with commercial scepticism.

VR has a lot of very significant barriers to overcome.

The looming menace of 3D TV’s spectacular demise hangs heavy. The need to wear 3D glasses was enough to pop that bubble before it even formed. What on earth are consumers going to make of the need to strap themselves into a headset?

It’s not only the bulk and inconvenience of the headset that’s the problem, either. Once headphoned up the user will be effectively isolated from their surrounding environment. The calls of spouses and kids will go unanswered, phone calls forgotten, Twitter updates on celebrity deaths missed and expensive tech deliveries from the postman left with the dodgy neighbour with all those cats.

Then there’s simply the hassle the strapping yourself in and setting up to play a VR game. I can just about be bothered to get my phone out of my pocket to play You Must Build A Boat. Sometimes switching the channel on my HDMI box to play PS4 can seem too much. I’ve been known to play games without sound as I can’t be arsed to plug in the headphones.

People will undergo this inconvenience, however, for experiences that reward you for it. Experiences that the easier options cannot provide. But will they do the same for experiences that will offer no benefit over playing traditionally? Will users really go through the hassle of setting up their equipment to play a console game being streamed to a virtual screen in a virtual room when it’s easier – and from a technical viewpoint, also better – just to turn on your real screen and play it in your real room?

The same argument can be applied to many of the world-changing social experiences promised by Facebook in the days following its acquisition of Oculus. Are you really going to go through the pre-VR set-up ritual so you can experience sitting in your room with your friends watching a movie? I suspect that people would always much rather sit an actual room with their friends without a plastic helmet. Or even in an actual room on their own, provided it take less effort.

None of this touches on the cost, either, which was conspicuous in its absence from Oculus’ E3 presentation yesterday. These things are going to cost a shitload. Particularly when you factor in additional controllers (which, incidentally, will ensure that the Oculus Rift audience is fragmented from a very early stage, but that’s another discussion entirely).

As I said, none of this is designed to question the potential of the VR experience. Or to argue that VR is the next 3D. With the right content, at the right price and with fewer compromises required, VR can in my opinion very much succeed.

But the timescales we’re looking at here are huge.

2016 is not going to be the year of VR for anyone other than those few who have the disposable cash and want to be the first to experience this new frontier of entertainment. If VR is to be measured by its mass-market penetration, then get comfy because all the players involved had best be ready for a long, long game.

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