“I’ve said this before, so you can’t totally trust me on this, but really, really I believe this is the time.” That’s Mark Bolas, associate professor at the University of Southern California, speaking to the New York Times about virtual reality’s upcoming breakthrough into the mass market – back in February 2013.
Predicting VR going mainstream and missing the mark has become a common occurrence. Google it and you’ll find hundreds of experts talking it up before going quiet: even Mark Zuckerberg has had a shot. One year on from the Facebook CEO taking the stage to tell the audience that he wanted one billion people to try virtual reality, he returned to admit that it hasn’t even hit 1% of that figure.
And the reality of VR technology has failed to live up to the hype for many consumers, wrote Christo Petrov for Techjury in April 2019. “Hardware issues, lack of content, and low growth beyond gaming are some of the issues that are making people think of VR as an overhyped fad. This is a matter of particular concern for the consumer VR industry that has failed to sustain the momentum behind the technology.”
So how far away are we from the much-vaunted VR mainstream? If we consider VR to simply be the ability to have a total immersion simulated experience – from lying on a beach, exploring Mars or jumping out of a plane – then, to be fair to Bolas, we’re now far beyond 2013’s clunky, expensive helmets. VR headsets are now commonplace and accessible, ranging from the cheap to the cutting edge. As hardware prices go down and internet speeds go up, VR is becoming far more accessible to everyone.
And while gaming is still where the VR money is going – global VR video gaming revenues are expected to reach $15.1 billion in 2019 – other sectors are quickly catching up to its potential. Big brands are getting in on the VR act: you can moonwalk with Samsung, sashay down Top Shop’s catwalk or travel through a Wonder Vault to experience the world of Oreo. And others are finding more uses for it behind the scenes.
Walmart, for example, recently rolled out a VR training programme for soft skills, such as empathy and using new technology. Universities such as MIT have virtual reality learning programmes, while the US army is using VR for military training. Medical training has huge potential: VR can allow surgeons to practice safely, or give medical professionals the chance to experience what life is like for sufferers of conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
The potential for changing the way we work and learn is vast. It could reduce travel drastically by allowing customers and clients to have experiences via VR whenever it’s convenient for them. Experiences can also be adjusted and altered to suit individuals, allowing everyone to have a training experience tailored specifically for them. VR chatrooms and co-working spaces could mean that homeworkers – whose numbers are rapidly growing – could get together with colleagues to work on projects that need face-to-face interaction, creating a significant impact on office space, working hours and culture.
Ana-Despina Tudor, leader of the MA Virtual Reality course at London College of Communication, told Broadcast.com that VR could transform many industries by creating a more engaging, interactive and memorable narrative and tools. “In terms of education, VR has great potential to become a regular teaching and practice tool, where complex concepts can be explained easily through amazing visualisations.”
What’s the holdup?
So, is the VR revolution actually here – and we just haven’t noticed it? Those experts are still optimistic, and with good reason. The global AR and VR market is expected to grow to $209.2 billion by 2022, as more and more companies tap into the gold mine of capabilities and potential of the technology.
Rosario Dawson, co-founder and CEO of VR Americas told hypergridbusiness.com that she sees the industry growing, with wearables becoming increasingly sophisticated and integrated.
“The consumer market is already understanding the use cases of VR and seeing real products they can use,” she said. “From my point of view, supply and demand are starting to align, giving us more space for growth, and I am enthusiastic with the present and for the future of the VR industry.”
It may be a good time to invest in tech companies with a VR focus, as it seems that big growth is still some time off. Of course technology investments, like all stocks can be volatile depending on a range of unknowable factors, such as global events and consumer tastes. More traditional investments, such as bonds and gold, that have historically been less volatile, can offer a potentially more reliable investment option, although, as always, the past isn’t an indicator of the future.