What it is: Facebook invested $3 billion dollars for Oculus in 2014 because they thought virtual reality would be the next hot computing field, but now they’re shutting down their Best Buy demo stations due to lack of interest.
Companies have been throwing money at virtual reality for years because they think it’s going to be the next hot field in computing like smartphones and tablets. From a technical point of view, virtual reality is interesting and exciting. However, technical solutions can only work if they also offer practical solutions in the everyday world as well.
For many people, even a computer isn’t necessary. Many people don’t own or use a computer because they don’t see a need for one. Yet they simply don’t know what they could be doing with a computer if they had one, so it’s like a chicken or the egg dilemma. If they had a computer, they would see its advantages, but if they don’t have a computer, they can’t see its advantages. Because they can’t see the advantages of using a computer, they won’t get one.
The problem isn’t that computers aren’t useful but that many people simply don’t know the potential. In the early days of mobile phones, many people claimed they had no use for a mobile phone. Only when smartphones became widely available with the iPhone leading the way did people realize they could find many uses for a smartphone that had nothing to do with making calls.
A smartphone can give you driving directions, allow you to send and receive text messages, let you take pictures, and even play games. What makes a smartphone useful isn’t just its phone calling capability but its many other features as well.
That’s why Facebook and many other companies hopped on the virtual reality bandwagon. They believed that once people saw the potential of virtual reality, they would eagerly want and buy them. That’s why Facebook set up Oculus virtual reality stations in Best Buy stores to give people a chance to try virtual reality with the intention of getting more people to buy and use virtual reality headsets like Oculus.
No matter what technical features virtual reality may offer, the hard truth is that it still needs to solve non-technical problems. A smartphone lets you stay in touch with people at all times and give you directions to get to places. More importantly, a smartphone is easy to carry and use, and just as easy to tuck out of sight when you don’t need it any more. Part of the smartphone’s appeal isn’t just its technical capabilities but its small form factor that makes it easy to use and carry at all times.
And that’s exactly where virtual reality falls flat on its face.
Facebook grew because it’s a platform for sharing. Yet virtual reality, by its nature, only works for a single person. You can’t share a virtual reality experience while it’s happening, only afterwards. Even worse, virtual reality headsets are simply not convenient to use.
Would you carry a virtual headset around in public? Probably not because it’s bulky and cumbersome. That means virtual reality headsets are limited to a fixed location like a home or office. That’s like relying on a desktop computer all the time, which is fine, but most people also have a laptop (and many people only have laptops). There’s a reason why laptop sales exceed desktop computer sales because people want their computer with them at all times.
Even then, a laptop is cumbersome to carry, which is why more people use smartphones that are smaller and easier to carry, or tablets that are larger but still light enough to carry comfortably. Virtual reality headsets are neither small, light, or easy to carry comfortably.
So the biggest obstacle to virtual reality isn’t the technical issues but the practical ones. When would you use a virtual reality headset? You have to use it in a fixed location like a desktop computer. That’s one strike against virtual reality.
You can’t share a virtual reality experience with others, so that’s a second strike against virtual reality. What problems can virtual reality solve? A smartphone is essentially a computer in your pocket. A virtual reality headset offers nothing more than a chance for one person to immerse him or herself in an isolated world.
So if you want an isolated experience in a fixed location that you can’t share with anyone else, you want a virtual reality headset. Is that appealing to many people?
That’s why Facebook is now planning to shut down their Best Buy virtual reality demo stations because few people actually wanted to see a virtual reality demonstration. If people don’t try a virtual reality headset, what are the odds they’ll actually buy one?
Virtual reality headsets are a technical marvel searching for a reason to exist. Just look at any picture of someone with a virtual reality headset strapped across their face. They can’t go out in public wearing that headset and they can’t even walk around an office or home with a headset on because it keeps them from doing anything else.
To use a smartphone, you pull it out and turn it on. To use a virtual reality headset, you must strap it on your face and then turn it on. Then when you’re done, unstrap it from your face and put it away. That simple act of strapping and unstrapping a headset from your face is a barrier that will keep many people from adopting virtual reality. If you had to strap a smartphone to your face to use it and then unstrap it again to put it away, how many people would want to use a smartphone?
Virtual reality solves technical problems, but fails to solve practical problems. That’s why Facebook essentially flushed billions down the drain for Oculus virtual reality headsets because they jumped on the virtual reality bandwagon without having a clear idea what virtual reality might be good for.
Eventually people will figure out what to use virtual reality for, but it’s probably not going to involve the hassle of strapping a headset to your face and taking it off again. The less convenient any product is to use, the less likely people will actually want to use it.