Virtual Reality – Easier Than You Think

‘Virtual’ access for all

Coming out of the ‘year of VR’, most people have now heard about Virtual Reality, but few have actually tried it. This doesn’t mean that VR isn’t gaining impressive momentum – the number of active global users doubled between 2015 and 2016, and is expected to double again this year.

Despite the hype around virtual environments, mass adoption simply hasn’t happened yet. This is mainly because a number of headsets carry a price tag that many people would consider expensive. The Oculus Rift, which is admittedly one of the more high-end products, costs around $600. If consumers want to buy Touch Controllers, that’s an extra $200. It’s not a purchase to make lightly. In spite of this, VR is now more accessible that ever. Consumers don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune to experience quality VR.

So how can people get their hands on the technology without paying hundreds of dollars?

Affordable VR
Our story starts with Google Cardboard, the smartphone-enabled, super cheap DIY headset literally made of cardboard. The product was unveiled at the 2014 I/O Developers Conference, driving down the cost of virtual experiences to just $15. At the ‘Made By Google’ event in October 2016, the company revealed Cardboard’s lightweight, textile-inspired successor, Daydream. The headset costs around $80, making it $20 cheaper than Samsung’s Gear VR (which is still pretty affordable). Whilst Gear VR had a head start in developing compatibility and finding partners, Google Daydream has also promised a long list of compatible devices. They’ve already partnered with YouTube, Netflix, Jaunt and even the Wall Street Journal.

This month, the tech leaders open sourced Daydream’s software. Henry Stuart, CEO at Visualise, calls Daydream the “perfect bridge platform” for encouraging engagement with the ‘metaverse’, AKA the virtual space. Visualise specialises in immersive virtual experiences. Commercial experiences (including a virtual TopShop catwalk, for example) are rolled out to consumers using branded cardboard headsets and smartphone apps. Smartphones have been a key enabler for VR, making it portable, widely accessible and free. Museums and galleries, for instance, have made the most of mobile VR for educational purposes. For those who want to try out the best quality headsets, there’s another option. Tension VR is a new centre based in Lincoln which offers one-off VR experiences using the HTC Vive. If you don’t fancy turning up to a VR centre or a museum, then there’s always WebVR. Facebook is working on Carmel, a new browser exclusively designed for VR that will be compatible with any headset brand.

How will affordable VR disrupt high-end VR?
If more people have access to low cost versions of VR, then it follows that they’ll be more inclined to try out more advanced products too. On the other hand, it could be questioned whether affordable VR technology will discourage consumers from investing in higher quality headsets. Are they more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to adoption? The team at VR startup RiftCat don’t think so. Their software enables consumers to ‘try before they buy’ using cardboard and plastic headsets connected to a computer and a compatible smartphone. At the moment, consumers will be more inclined to spend smaller amounts of money to work out whether they want to invest in high-end VR. This has created a promising business opportunity, and it’s one that RiftCat and Tension VR have seized. This might be negatively disruptive for expensive headsets in the short term, but ultimately it will convince consumers to buy their very own state-of-the-art VR set-ups.

It’s clear that consumers are still reluctant to spend considerable amounts of money on VR. Even so, VR really is more accessible than ever before. Products like Daydream will continue to nudge consumers towards wider adoption, as will other smartphone-enabled devices. These products are great, but not so great that users won’t wonder what a high-quality virtual experience would be like. As headsets get cheaper, more people will be willing to buy them. That’s why products like Daydream and Gear VR are so important, as they offer a stepping stone between the initial VR experience and the eventual mass adoption of high-end headsets. One-off, pay-as-you-play VR experiences like those offered by Tension VR, along with the expansion of WebVR, will also give the wider population a chance to experience the metaverse. The adoption of VR relies as much on developers and it does consumers, who have to create products that people want to engage with and continue to address the main complaints against VR hardware and software. If prices can drop without compromising quality, then there’s no reason why the number of virtual reality users shouldn’t, as Statista has predicted, double over the coming year.

Will affordable, easily-accessible Virtual Reality help or hinder the adoption of advanced VR technology? Would you buy, or have you already bought, a VR headset? The amount of VR users is expected to double this year – is this an optimistic prediction? Share your thoughts and opinions.