Over the last 8 months, I've emersed myself fully into the world of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. I've been excited at the potential impact of these new platforms on decision making in e-commerce, the role it will play with brand perceptions while getting a pulse on how soon the "year of VR" will be here.
I can recall speaking at conferences from 2005-2010 and talking about how that year was going to be the "year of mobile." Just like VR platforms today, mobile back then had not reached the masses and the ecosystem hadn't yet consolidated down to two manageable platforms to choose from in Apple and Android.
Having spent time working with an Oculus Rift setup, a Microsoft Hololens, and various mobile-based systems, I can say without a doubt that the future of a virtual, augmented, or mixed reality is promising.
It's just not coming anytime soon. Here's why:
- It's too expensive for the best systems. Although consumers are willing to pay upwards of $1,000 for a smartphone, the majority are still getting the mid or lower tier phones because they are good enough and more affordable. Having to spend upwards of $700 or more for a PC gaming system to run and render an Oculus or HTC Vive setup is asking a lot and will be a real barrier to mass adoption.
- Even the best systems kind of suck. Don't get me wrong, VR can create an incredible presence-based experience that will make you gasp, but the "screen door" effect makes reading any text difficult and overall everything is decidedly low resolution. We need true 4k or better resolution for these experiences to really be great. Low refresh rates and a field of view that falls short of your natural vision also creates a sometimes disorienting experience that can lead to nausea or dizziness - both of which aren't great selling benefits to the masses
- Mobility is limited. The best systems require lots of wires - which means tethering can limit your range of motion. There are "wireless" adapters coming out, but most experiences are still limited to a small range of motion
- Mobile-based VR systems solve mobility, but they introduce other issues. Most mobile solutions rely on your mobile phone (you insert your phone into a headset) so the processing power and resolution is even more limited than your full PC game setup. There are some stand-alone products coming out this year that promise better resolution and cord-free - but they still compromise what VR can be compared to the full PC setup experience
- There are too many competing platforms today. We need to see some consolidation around platforms so that consumers will have simpler choices to make
With all that said, when will we have the year of virtual reality?
From my perspective, we are a few years away from getting VR based experiences to the masses in a meaningful way.
The solution? Mobile. More specifically, the next generation of mobile networks also referred to as 5G.
Starting this year, carriers around the world are rolling out the next generation of technology that will add to the existing 4G based networks to create speeds that are truly amazing.
A next-generation 5G enabled smartphone (let's say in 2019 or 2020) will not only have 4k equivalent or better resolution, it will have access to network speeds that will allow all the processing power needed to run full VR experience in the cloud. Instead of needing a powerful gaming machine to run VR, you can just leverage the cloud to process and deliver the outputs.
5G is about as fast as those fiber networks we kept hearing about from Google and others a few years ago. Google has quietly slowed down investment in fiber because 5G is about as fast and a fraction of the cost to deploy.
Since most consumers have a smartphone and they tend to upgrade at least once every two years, their next phone will remove all the current friction associated with getting into VR and make accessing and experiencing VR as easy as opening their Facebook App today.
2020 will be the year of Virtual Reality.