In a blog post published yesterday on his official website, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey (who had to leave Facebook after his support of Nimble America, a pro-Donald Trump group, during 2016's presidential campaign became public) said that there is no existing or imminent VR device that's good enough to truly break into mainstream. That's even if said device was given for free because the barrier is mainly constituted by the quality of the experience rather than price.
In the end, hardware sales are a meaningless metric for the success of VR. They matter only as a means to an end, a foundation to enable the one thing that truly matters: Engagement. Engagement is all that matters. Engagement is Everything!
This is just as true in the present day. Hardware sales get a lot of attention and speculation from analysts and consumers alike, but the real name of the game revolves around the number of people logging in and spending money each week, the life force that makes everything actually go. Recent market experiments with cheap VR hardware have shown that there are millions of people willing to buy said hardware, but very few among them continue to use the hardware or invest in the software ecosystem for very long. This is true even when people get the hardware for free – the millions of cardboard boxes fulfilling their ultimate destiny on the back shelf of a closet don’t do much for the VR industry. Why the lack of use? Quality of experience.
I want to take this a step further and make a bold claim: No existing or imminent VR hardware is good enough to go truly mainstream, even at a price of $0.00. You could give a Rift+PC to every single person in the developed world for free, and the vast majority would cease to use it in a matter of weeks or months. I know this from seeing the results of large-scale real-world market testing, not just my own imagination – hardcore gamers and technology enthusiasts are entranced by the VR of today, as am I, but stickiness drops off steeply outside of that core demographic. Free is still not cheap enough for most people, because the cost is not what holds them back actively or passively.
The Oculus founder didn't completely lose hope in Virtual Reality, though. In fact, he argued that VR will eventually become the dominant platform, though how long that takes is unclear right now. It will depend on how quickly VR manufacturers can produce better hardware, broader content, and a more natural interface.
Virtual Reality is a reasonable candidate for the most important technology of the century. It is hard to prove with current technology and adoption, of course, but the argument is trivially easy if you assume even moderate technological advancement compounded over decades. The real debate should be over the timeline for adoption and how many boom/bust cycles VR will see between inception in the 1960s and eventual, inevitable dominance as the final platform (yes, AR is also cool).
We can minimize and perhaps eliminate those cycles with better hardware, broader content, and a deep understanding of how to best interface with a human perceptual system that varies significantly across age, gender, and race. Every dollar that goes into making those things better now will pay huge dividends down the road, especially when compared with forced marketing to segments of the world that are not yet ready to embrace VR.
Oculus will release a new standalone and untethered device, the Quest, in Spring 2019 for $399. However, Oculus CTO John Carmack already clarified that its power will be comparable to the Nintendo Switch from a hardware standpoint.
Do you agree with Palmer Luckey with regards to the short-term future of VR? Tell us in the comments.