VR Reality Check: Challenges to Widespread Consumer Adoption

Many things have transpired since my previous Streaming Media article, Is Virtual Reality Streaming Ready for Primetime?, appeared last November. In that article, I predicted that when YouTube provided a platform for virtual reality (VR) content, VR would be poised to enter the mainstream. Eight months later, with YouTube allowing users to livestream 360° VR videos, we can see a path to mass consumer adoption.

VR remains a niche market at this writing, but it’s a growing one with huge potential. Several consumer headsets and VR cameras are now available to ship to consumers. According to Forrester Research, there will be 52 million headsets sold by 2020. Other analysts are predicting 171 million headsets sold by 2018. Either way, analysts are bullish about the overall growth of the VR industry.

There is an ongoing debate whether 360° video is truly VR. I consider it a subset of VR that will have its place in live events such as sports, concerts, lectures, religious events, training, conferencing, and cinematic experiences. In this article, I will focus primarily on recorded and live 360° video. 360° video will expand VR beyond the gaming industry and usher in new uses, which will have a positive net effect for consumers and businesses alike. But before we get there, we’ll face several challenges.

Battle of the Headsets: Standardization and Compatibility Still Lacking

After much anticipation, the desktop consumer versions of the Oculus Rift CV1, HTC Vive, and the Samsung Gear VR (powered by its Galaxy line of mobile phones) have hit the shelves with great fanfare and even controversy. Despite the fact that many of the manufacturers have not released official sell-through numbers, it’s estimated that several million headsets have already been sold. Facebook recently stated that there were more than 1 million users of the Gear VR (Figure 1, below) alone.

Figure 1. Samsung’s Galaxy smartphone-based Gear VR

On its launch, the Oculus Rift CV1 had some manufacturing and shipping issues. Oculus was not able to initially fulfill preorders, which frustrated many buyers. In addition, Oculus launched an update to its Oculus Home storefront that no longer supported Revive, an app that allowed games and content on to run on the competing HTC Vive headset (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. The HTC Vive headset

Oculus distributes software through Oculus Home, while the HTC’s Vive is designed to work with Valve’s Steam platform. However, Valve has made conscious efforts for its software to work with the Oculus headset. Since each system is PC-based, technically, any software or game made by Oculus can work with HTC Vive and vice versa.

Consumer platforms for VR by Oculus, HTC, and Sony take a walled-garden approach to delivering content, which leads to fragmentation and confusion.

Microsoft is addressing this fragmentation with its Windows Holographic platform, which supports the HoloLens and enables developers to build their own compatible augmented reality (AR) and VR headsets. Microsoft’s goal is to provide the operating system for VR and let other companies develop the software, hardware, or other peripherals.

Google recently announced that it’s going all-in with a full VR ecosystem for Android called Daydream. Daydream, a VR platform that includes hardware and software, is set to be released in 3Q 2016. Google has yet to unveil the necessary hardware and specific details of its platform. Daydream will not support current mobile phones, but Google’s intention is to set a new standard for the next generation of VR-optimized Android OS and hardware.

Major players such as Facebook (Oculus), Google (YouTube), HTC (Steam), Sony, Microsoft, and Samsung are vying to set the standards for VR, but it’s too early to identify a clear winner since everything is currently in flux. Only when a specific platform gains traction will mass adoption begin.

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