Virtual reality is a technology that has received a lot of hype in recent years. Following the launch of hardware like the Oculus Rift, news outlets heralded a new era of virtual reality entertainment that would benefit areas of our lives that include education, healthcare, tourism as well as gaming.
But 10 years on from the launch of these new VR headsets, has the reality lived up to the promises made by the manufacturers?
Sales of VR devices have not taken off as expected. To make an anecdotal examination, think of all the people in your social group. How many of them own (and regularly use) a virtual reality device? Most likely, the answer is none or very few.
That’s not to say that nobody is buying VR technology. Research conducted by IDC showed that year-on-year VR and AR (augmented reality) headset sales increased by 27.2% in the first quarter of 2019. It also predicted that these sales will increase further as devices that are standalone (meaning they don’t need to be connected to a computer) will help boost sales in the coming years, claiming that this was one of the biggest factors constraining consumer uptake.
Although the proportional increase is impressive, the numbers are still comparatively low. 5.9 million VR units were sold in 2018, with forecasts of around 7.6 million in 2019. These figures are dwarfed by mobile phone sales which total 1.5 billion each year. Perhaps a fairer comparison is to games consoles. The PlayStation 4 has sold 100 million units since its release in late 2013, averaging out at 16.6 million units per year.
Gaming is one of the biggest areas for virtual reality products. However, it has not seen the success that many pundits predicted. While both Sony and Microsoft announced that they were developing virtual reality headsets for their consoles, only Sony has released one. The PlayStation VR launched in late 2016 and has sold a total of 2 million units. Therefore, just 2% of PlayStation 4 owners have shelled out for the virtual reality add on.
Microsoft, on the other hand, decided to cancel their plans to launch a virtual reality headset for the Xbox. Announcing in June of 2018 that it had decided to focus on experiences that users would get through their TV. It didn’t say it was completely giving up on VR, instead saying that it felt it was better suited for computers.
One of the specifications required to run virtual reality games is the high hardware. For example, PokerStars VR, which allows players to play poker in what it calls “unprecedented realism” requires a minimum of 8GB of RAM and 4 free USB ports (three of which must be USB 3). Ubisoft’s Star Trek Bridge Crew also has these same requirements, including a 64-bit operating system and an Intel Core i5-4590 (or higher) processor.
Perhaps a better area for virtual reality to succeed in is education. VR technology has been touted as a way to revolutionise the way that education and training are delivered at all ages. One key area for this would be healthcare, where doctors would be able to practice undertaking surgeries in virtual reality, without having to touch live patients. Investment in this area is expected to increase by 43% in 2019, double the percentage increase on the previous two years. The education sector is also investing more in VR, with a 36% increase in 2019. This is in contrast to gaming, where growth has been slowing each year since 2017.
One of the biggest investors in this technology is Oxford Medical Simulations. The company is currently rolling out its technology to the John Radcliffe Hospital in the English county of Oxfordshire. The hospitals “Oxford Simulation and Teaching Resource” will allow doctors to train in more realistic environments. Outside of healthcare, VR can help tradespeople practice their craft in a virtual environment, allowing them to learn from mistakes and get a wider variety of experiences. It also means students can attend “virtual field trips” to locations on the other side of the world, without having to leave the classroom.
Virtual reality is by no means dead. Instead, the predicted uses for the technology appear not to have been as successful as companies had originally hoped. This can be seen by the slow sales figures for VR hardware, with less than 6 million units sold in 2018. However, it seems that VR is still a technology with plenty of potential. Investment in the education and healthcare sectors are seeing sharp increases. The benefits of VR technology in these sectors are likely to yield substantial benefits to the wide population, with better healthcare for patients, and broader educational experiences for students. VR has a future, it’s just different from what was predicted.