Looks like we’ve unlocked a new simulated reality. Is it here stay?
Despite some promising numbers, we still can’t be sure whether VR will reach mass consumer adoption within the next few years, or if it risks falling off yet again. If VR does seem to be hitting its big stride, what content should we expect to see?
To hazard a guess, let’s quickly review the timeline of virtual reality.
As early as 1929, Link Trainer, a flight simulator, was built for safely training WWII pilots. In 1989, NASA applied that idea to space. Stanley Weinbaum’s Pygmalion’s Spectacles predicted our contemporary concept of VR in the 1930’s. Virtual arcade machines started circulating as early as 1991. These were even real time (less than 50ms latency) and networked for multiplayer!
After `91 there were big 3D and headset releases from Sega and Nintendo, yet these too faded into obscurity. So what gives (gave?)? Why were all of these consoles and machines sunsetted?
Each one was lacking a sorely needed component: comfort.
Cybersickness, as you might conjecture, is a motion sickness that occurs through exposure to a virtual world. It’s generally assumed to be caused from a discrepancy of our proprioception, our sense of position and movement, from reality. This nausea can be exacerbated by another discrepancy, an oculomotor inconsistency with the reality your eyes expect, and the one they perceive.
So in a way, it’s pretty rad that we can encase a digital screen over our faces and our brains will say “word, I guess this is my life now”. Being utterly convinced of the simulation isn’t the challenge, the immersion actually works so well it’s creating the problem.
The biggest challenge is our saccades, the continuous jerking movements of our eyes used for fixation and REM sleep, which can hit angular speeds of up to 700°/s. So if the physics and speed of VR software can’t convince our body that we are moving consistently, and our eyes that we are seeing what we expect to, then we’ll be spending the majority of our time grounded in reality. And nobody wants that.
Okay, the issues with earlier VR was graphic limitations and nauseating movements. But based on the number of Oculus Quest sales we’ve surely resolved that issue now, right?
As of 2022, the graphics are tight and the games are a blast. We’ve had decades of research and figuring out what not to do to better reduce the nausea. Lighter HMDs, smoother transitions, peripheral blurring, dark and warm lighting. All of this makes it more bearable. But mass adoption is still a struggle.
For over 1/3rd of our population, there’s still an expectation of nausea when they put on a headset. This means that either the graphics still aren’t enough, the headsets cause disorientation, or worse, many people’s perception pipelines simply reject reality immersion.
Compared to console and PC game-related nausea, that’s essentially a total available market reduction of 30%. With such a massive drop-off if would be damn near impossible to maintain widespread adoption momentum.
In short, VR content’s gotta learn how to be more approachable.
Your old pal AI
The good news is that serious R&D is yielding answers. Copernic360 uses geometric AI to create photorealistic environments. And they aren’t the only ones. As Meta continues to pump billions (a cool $10 billion so far) into their Metaverse, VCs have greater incentives to invest in companies geared towards riding that wave.
The VR market’s annual revenue is predicted to triple to over $12B from 2021–2024 — Statista
Coupled with this era’s well-timed fact that the machine learning fields are actively blowing up, VR’s longevity looks bright. Every year we are getting faster and (computationally) cheaper neural nets. Not to mention that most VR headsets, with accelerometers in the controllers and cameras pointed at our eyes, are a perfect springboard for AI tools.
We can get there
So for the question of whether now is truly the jumping point for VR, this author thinks yes. Mass adoption can happen. Many might argue that it’s here now, but despite these behemoth investment cycles, reasonable risk remains of devices turning into vintage novelties. But market analysts widely seem to believe in the growth potential, and market confidence begets, well, individual confidence!
I’d like to finish up with some thoughts on a couple areas I expect will see big jumps in the next couple years
As we continue to hit higher concurrent player numbers, multiplayer games are positioned to be the next focal point for developers. Subscription services, pay-to-win, PvP DLC etc. can bring home some serious cheddar. Just look at Microsoft snapping up Activision for a cool $68.7 billion. And while there was a huge VR investment boom in 2018, a lot of the content was single player (high score boards don’t count) due to uncertainties around activity and latency.
For the latter we have new console-agnostic updates from Unity’s XR tools, smoother graphics, and AI predictions to counteract lag.
Concurrency challenges are a bit of a chicken and egg problem: you need users to get users. Well, lately, VR escape rooms and shooters are popping up all around urban areas, and I think the reason is partly for indie devs to create multiplayer content in an immediately testable (and revenue generating) environment.
Competitive fitness games will become more widespread, with the wearable market expanding nearly 10% in a five-year CAGR report.
Advancing NLP technology coupled with behavior parsing/prediction will generate virtual AI therapy companions.
Position estimation networks and posture suggestion software can offer improvements for athletic and physical training.
Most exciting, the educational sector has a huge market for growth. With individually tailored accommodations, competitive gamification (morally debatable), and attention monitoring (okay, let’s not get too Orwellian) our Banking Model of Education[Freire] can get a sorely needed revamp.
This one’s admittedly more of a pipedream. Prison regulations can be pretty brutal, but it has been done before. I’d love to see further content proffered in areas that help reduce recidivism through skill-building and rehabilitation software.
Finally, what kind of entrepreneur would I be if I didn’t mention my own company, Lovelace Studios.
By day a collaborative game incubator studio, and by night, a uniquely immersive cyberpunk arcade bar. We sync the studio/arcade dualism to generate dynamic player-oriented content.