It’s still common to see articles discussing whether or not virtual reality will succeed, despite its strong and continued growth. The disconnect comes from two places: that it hasn’t moved as quickly as evangelists predicted, and (perhaps more importantly) that it hasn’t moved in the direction evangelists predicted.
When the general public thinks about virtual reality, one thing comes to mind: entertainment. That could be in the form of video games, it could be in the form of movies, or it could be a hybrid of the two experiences that we haven’t quite cracked. And it’s true that entertainment is still taking up the bulk of VR’s sales. But it hasn’t yet dominated the industry, for reasons that no one can quite pin down. It could be the cost, it could be the inconsistent quality of experiences (no one wants to throw up from playing Resident Evil, unless it’s because they were just that scared), or it could simply be that people are pretty happy with what they’ve got now, and they don’t think it’s worth it to upgrade for what VR can currently offer.
Regardless of the reason, what we fail to spend much time talking about is how well VR is doing in other industries. Take healthcare, for instance, where VR and AR are being used everywhere from assisting surgeons with visualizations to treating pain for at risk patients. And in training programs, virtual reality is teaching elevator technicians around the world, giving medical students experience without the need for expensive cadavers, and helping bomb techs learn to disable dangerous weapons.
So the big question is: do we really know what VR is good at?
Alex Kipman from Microsoft believes VR’s killer app will be communication. Hammer & Tusk has said in the past that virtual reality is posed to take on the computer, eliminating our need for screens of any kind. But who could have predicted when personal computers came out in the 1980s that we would soon be carrying them around in our pockets, and that the hardware they would most disrupt was cameras?
The evidence for a disruption of computers by spatial computing is based on a few simple factors. First of all: screens are uncomfortable. We all know this. They hurt your eyes, they hurt your back when you have to sit in front of them, they can cause neck strain if the monitor isn’t just right, and they’re clunky and cumbersome. Anything that makes computers more comfortable will be an instant hit with consumers, and very likely to wipe traditional computing off the map. The problem with that, of course, is that spatial computer is currently about equal in comfort-level. It’s easier on your eyes, true, but can lead to headaches and weird adjustments when you have to jump back to the real world. It helps your back and posture, but it adds a sometimes painful weight on your head itself, which is likely to create strain on neck and back muscles. Gone is repetitive stress injuries from typing… except we haven’t quite figured out keyboardless typing with any of the XR products currently on the market. “IF” opens a lot of doors, but remains just that. A possibility.
The other factor leading people to assume a computer disruption cycle is, and I hate to phrase it this way: cool factor. Think about the science fiction shows you’ve seen over the past 20 years. How many of them featured touchless interfaces and holographic projections? Is it all of them? Unless you were picturing a dystopian future, chances are that was exactly what you were seeing. From Star Wars to Minority Report, spatial computing has always felt like the inevitable outcome of technology moving forward. We always intended to reach a point where our technology was invisible and all-surrounding.
So how do we feel now that we’re a few years into virtual reality’s rise? It still seems likely that VR will take on the computer, but it seems less of a sure thing that it will win in the way we expected it to. More likely is the possibility that virtual reality will find a niche we could never have predicted. From there it will grow in strength and popularity, so that as the technology matures it will be better able to launch a frontal assault on computing as we know it.
Written by Wren Handman for Hammer & Tusk. Sign up for our weekly VR/AR newsletter.