So Much Promise, So Little Scale: VR’s Fate Remains Uncertain

In last year’s Gartner Hype Cycle, which tracks the hype around emerging technologies, virtual reality (VR) was supposedly coming out of the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’, which is the low point for any technology, and had supposedly started out on the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’. But thus far the slope of enlightenment has been a steep one for VR. Whilst few who experience VR doubt its potential, questions remain about where it’s going to fit into our already 0ver-loaded media consumption habits, and the extent to which the technology will be used beyond the early adopters in the gaming community.

Emerging Technology Hype Cycle

Many ‘traditional media’ companies have been dipping their toes, and the most recent announcement came from the BBC who say they plan to invest £34 million in VR in a bid to win back British children from US competitors like YouTube, Netflix and Amazon.

But just last week the broadcaster announced the results of a recent study that looked at how mainstream audiences respond to VR, and the results identified some fundamental flaws when it comes to user adoption — at least at this moment in time — including:

1. Time

Finding an appropriate occasion for using VR was an issue for many of the BBC study’s participants s i.e. when is the right time to use it and is VR something people will want to experience on a regular basis in the same way they do with other media channels.

2. The Hardware 

The more affordable end of the VR hardware – i.e. those that feature a mobile phone such as Google’s Daydream and the Samsung Gear VR – are still relatively clunky to use. Then the headsets or the screens of the phone are often dirty and if they aren’t cleaned this will significantly diminish the quality of the experience. In order to use smartphone-based VR, the phone must of course be charged, which — considering that headsets are often used at the end of the day – after school, college or work, typically when the phone is low on power.

3. Content Discovery and User Experience

Some of the participants found their headsets to be difficult to use if they hadn’t used them for a while, suggesting that the current user interfaces aren’t as intuitive as they should be. These problems were compound by the fact that the way to navigate around various VR environments differs from app to app – adding to frustration.

The BBC’s survey respondents also struggled to discover content themselves and rarely ventured out of the main app; in spite of the fact the BBC provided a range of high quality content to them. Their discovery was mostly limited to “gimmicky, adrenalin-focussed and games-orientated experiences”, which resulted in “the novelty factor wearing off quickly”.

As if those barriers weren’t enough, other considerations included:

  • Safety and security – some audiences were concerned about being shut-off from what’s happening around them.
  • Social norming – some were anxious about feeling stupid in front of friends, or self-conscious about their appearance, hair and make-up.
  • Physical space – often audiences weren’t in the right physical situation – sitting down on a sofa after a long day or lying in bed is not conducive to an experience which necessitates turning around and looking behind you.
  • Proximity of headset – the headset needs to be conveniently available. Many of us will have hundreds of potentially entertaining distractions in our homes; however, it will tend to be the ones which are the most visible / proximate / easy to engage with which we use. If a headset has been put away on a shelf, in a cupboard, or under a bed, it will not be front of mind.
  • Social interaction – for some audiences the insular / individual nature of the experience was off-putting as they preferred connecting with others either digitally or in physical space.

Most of the participants in the BBC study said they wouldn’t rush out and buy a VR headset today, many believed they would once the technology improved. And at least some of those improvements are coming in the short to medium term.

For example, on the hardware front, we’re already seeing some of the more advanced VR systems coming down in price. For example, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, which offers a more technologically advanced and immersive experience, is already coming down in price, and can be picked up for £399 in the ‘Summer of Rift’ sale, which comes bundled with Oculus Touch controllers.

The range of content available is also likely to be improved greatly as VR advertising is likely to help fund free content, but it’s still early days. Just a few weeks ago, Google showcased some VR advertising prototypes. Here’s what a “native, mobile VR ad format” might look like, which aims to be non-intrusive and non-interruptive as the user opts to view it:

Google VR


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