Virtual reality can’t catch a break

The industry is facing an Oculus rift: It should be more popular right now, but consumers haven’t caught the wave.


May 14, 2020

A VR app like Bigscreen should be all anyone can talk about right now. Forget Netflix Party: With movie theaters closed across much of the country, Bigscreen lets you visit a virtual theater with a friend. You can even grab popcorn from a concession stand. 

So, what’s keeping Bigscreen from going blockbuster? As The New York Times explained, it’s kind of exhausting to watch a movie with a headset on. And eating VR snacks? It just makes you hungry for the real thing.

The industry is facing an Oculus rift: In theory, people stuck in quarantine should be flocking to VR. But even the most immersive experiences can’t match the popularity of Zoom calls.

VR execs are putting their headsets together

They’re brainstorming a full assortment of pandemic-ready innovations: 

  • A Los Angeles startup called Within just released a VR fitness app — and told Protocol that rumors of VR’s struggle for relevance are greatly exaggerated.
  • The startup Spatial has been offering up fully immersive office meetings. But they’re not always practical: What if you want to take notes? 
  • AltSpaceVR functions like a city block, where people can gather and attend concerts. 
  • Tourists sites like Machu Picchu and museums like the Guggenheim are offering VR tours to housebound visitors.

One reason these innovations have slipped under the radar: VR has been around for a while (remember Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, from the mid-’90s?). The early hype means even significant improvements feel retro. Axios calls this cycle the “trough of disappointment.”

There are bright spots…

One data analytics company is expecting standalone VR headset sales to jump 30% before the year is out.

But one of the biggest VR success stories didn’t even require a headset. For its big May Day celebration, the city of Helsinki partnered with VR company Zoan to launch a concert within a 3D version of Helsinki. 

The mayor kicked it off with a speech, and viewers could tune in on their browsers or headsets. 

By the time the Finnish rap group JVG finished its set, ~700k people — or about 1/8 of the whole population of Finland — had tuned in. 

One writer for The Guardian donned a pineapple avatar and used her computer mouse to bop to the beat. “I can’t say it had the buzz of being at a ‘proper’ concert,” she wrote. “But, technically, it was impressive.”

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