Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

VR in Our Virus-Altered Reality

Ina Fried, Axios:

Virtual reality can bring faraway people together and take us places we can’t physically go. That should make it the perfect breakout technology for both personal and professional life in the stay-at-home era — yet it remains a niche product.

[…] Virtual reality remains in its infancy, despite decades of on-and-off development, billions of dollars in investment and a ton of anticipation. Sales of VR headsets have repeatedly failed to live up to expectations. IDC reported 1.4 million units sold globally in Q4, down 23% from the prior year.

Matt Birchler:

VR is, you guessed it, not having a moment. In fact, while a stay-at-home-and-isolate-yourself pandemic has been going on that is prime time to have people lose themselves in other worlds for longer than normal, VR seems just as niche as it’s ever been. The only major push the medium has had in recent memory is the release of Half Life: Alyx, which moved a ton of headsets, but that’s really it.

Benedict Evans:

To put this another way, it’s quite common to say that the iPhone, or PCs, or aircraft also looked primitive and useless once, but they got better, and the same will happen here. The problem with this is that the iPhone or the Wright Flier were indeed primitive and impractical, but they were breakthroughs of concept with clear paths for radical improvement. The iPhone had a bad camera, no apps and no 3G, but there was no reason why those couldn’t quickly be added. Blériot flew across the Channel just six years after the Wrights’ first powered flight. What’s the equivalent forward path here? There was an obvious roadmap for getting from a duct-taped mock-up to the Oculus Quest, and today for making the Quest even smaller and lighter, but what is the roadmap for breaking into a completely different model of consumer behaviour or consumer application? What specifically do you have to believe will change to take VR beyond games?

Zac Hall, 9to5Mac:

It’s no secret that Apple has ambitious plans for augmented reality and a future AR-focused headset. Apple is practically building the platform for its future headset out in the open with ARKit. What’s new is that Apple is believed to be in the process of acquiring a California-based virtual reality company called NextVR, 9to5Mac has learned.

[…]

The icing on the cake may not be expertise in virtual reality, however, as NextVR also has holds patented technology that upscales video streams. NextVR uses this technology to support high quality video streams of music and sporting events to VR headsets. NextVR holds over 40 technology patents in total.

It is interesting to me that Apple confirmed this acquisition the very same week as the publication of two high-profile articles, from Fried and Evans, about VR’s failure to gain traction. I don’t mean to imply that there’s any connection, nor that Apple is either making a mistake or will be a kick in the pants for VR — just that it’s an interesting coincidence.

I am curious about what any company can bring to this space beyond games. As Evans says, it’s easy to envision a roadmap for VR that makes it somewhat smaller and more elegant, but what does that actually change for its real-world use? The rumours of an augmented reality headset from Apple are equally intriguing; the Apple Watch is designed to be worn all day, and a pair of AirPods can be worn for hours while walking anywhere or doing anything. From what exists right now, it’s hard to envision a headset that is anything other than a specialized gadget — and Apple doesn’t really do specialized gadgets.