Virtual Reality Adoption: Market Size, Affordability, Ergonomics, and Shareability

The big story of CES 2016 was the outstanding Virtual Reality demos by Oculus, HTC, and Samsung.  A lot of stuff on the technology and how amazing it is has already been written, but I wanted to touch upon some of the user adoption issues that I think these companies need to overcome in order to make this a mass-audience play.

There basically 4 contenders emerging out of the CES 2016:

  • Oculus
  • HTC
  • Sony
  • Samsung

We all know that Oculus is the front runner.  Facebook’s purchase of Oculus put them on the map. They are taking VR and pushing the platform forward with brilliant technology and engineering. The new comer is HTC. They’ve come out of no-where with their Vive headset and are showing what some are saying are more impressive technical demos than Oculus.

The key thing for HTC’s Vive is its affiliation with SteamVR.  It gives them that reach towards hardcore gamers and a proven eCommerce platform to sell software off of.  Great move by HTC and Valve. Sony didn’t participate in CES 2016, but they have been showing off their Morpheus headset and are boasting a large gaming catalogue. Samsung’s focus is on their mobile devices with GearVR.  More importantly, Samsung’s take on VR is in the market today.

I’ll admit it: I’m on the VR bandwagon. I bought a cheap Google Cardboard shortly after Christmas and I’ve put it through its paces.  All I can say is that even for $15 CAD, this stuff is real, it has tonnes of potential, and it won’t be going away too soon.  There’s real promise to the technology today (unlike the ridiculousness of the mid-90s version of VR as typified by Vr.5).  I want to pre-order to Oculus Rift, but I’d also have to spend a good chunk of change upgrading my PC. There are also a few things I find questionable about the mass-adoption of VR technologies.

Is the market large enough?

Sony didn’t participate in CES2016 this year.  They probably have the most to offer with their planned Sony VR headset being primed and ready for the Playstation 4.  With a 100 games at launch, this will be a significant coup for them.  Given an install base of over 36 Million PS4s in world-wide, it looks like the addressable market for Sony’s VR platform appear to be 2-4 times greater1 than Oculus and HTC’s share of compatible computers.

As Jason Evangelho from says:

GPU maker Nvidia estimates that when the Oculus Rift ships later this quarter, there will only be 13 million PCs that are able to run an optimized VR experience.

Jason Paul, general manager of Nvidia’s Shield, gaming, and VR business, has insight into the hefty demands for gaming in Virtual Reality. Speaking to VentureBeat, he said: “If you look at your typical PC gaming experience, 90 percent of the gamers out there play at 1080p. For a smooth experience you don’t want to go below 30fps. Compare that to VR where the displays are about 2K, but you have to render closer to 3K, and you don’t want to go below 90fps. **It’s about a sevenfold increase in raw performance to render for VR versus traditional PC gaming.**”

Meanwhile, we just learned that Sony’s $349 PlayStation 4 continues to sell briskly, with the company approaching 36 million units sold globally. Every PS4 sold is capable of running the PlayStation VR (formerly Project Morpheus) experience. On the most basic level, that means there are 36 million PS4 systems in the wild right now, capable of running an optimized VR experience (“optimized” since there’s only one platform with uniform specs to develop for).Jason Evangelho

Is this a profitable business sustainable with only 10s of millions of users? Definitely a “yes” if the devices can be sold at a high margin, but…

We all know that consumer tech is typically a race towards the bottom.

If anyone is positioned well, I got to think that Samsung’s approach is the most valid.  With 100 of millions of handsets already compatible with GearVR, it’s gives a really immersive experience with a relatively low start-up cost.  While I don’t think Samsung will lead the race2, they will be remembered as the ones who really got the VR bandwagon rolling. Hell, they’re providing all the display tech anyway.

New technology is always expensive

I know that hardcore PC gamer will front the money for a headset that promises to offer a more immersive experience for their games, not too sure about console gamers.

The cost is significant. Only a small percentage of PCs today meet the minimum requirements for consumer VR.  At ~$1500 USD for a headset and VR-ready computer bundle, I’m not sure if VR will spur people to upgrade their computers.  More importantly, there really isn’t any portable computing solution that allows people to even experience Rift or Vive.

Quite frankly, households don’t have that many desktops anymore–I typically wouldn’t recommend a desktop to anyone purchasing a new computer.

Wires suck

Having your head tethered to a PC or gaming console feels a bit ridiculous and looks ridiculous.  As impressive as the Vive’s head and motion tracking appears to be, walking around with a cable tethered to your head isn’t exactly immersive.  Total health and safety hazard right there. It’s an ergonomics issue that will require significant engineering to overcome.

The experience isn’t shareable

Having a person holding the cables coming out of the back of your head as you walk around isn’t what I call communal.

Not being able to easily share the experience with others will hold back adoption as well; they can’t leverage the network effects of the Internet and their growth will probably operate more like a SneakerNet. It can’t go viral very easily.  eReaders have the exact same problem with traditional book lovers. Traditionalists don’t see a reason to change over, but if you give them an eReader to use, the likelihood of conversion is much higher.3

That said, the display technology is absolutely bleeding edge.  John Carmack discusses some of the issues that they are encountering in his 2014 Oculus Connect keynote.  I suspect it will probably drive a lot of the innovation in the consumer electronics-, pc-, and mobile-space for several years to come.

  1. Given that nVidia provided the number, they are probably excluding computer systems with AMD-based GPU cards.  So this is most likely underestimated on their part. 
  2. Samsung’s reliance on Google for the software will do them in.  Cheap Chinese OEM knock-offs of GearVR are already flooding the market. 
  3. I’d like to think that I know what I’m talking about here.  ^_^