Whither VR/AR?

“Despite many pronouncements that 2016 was the year of VR, a more apt word for virtual reality might be absence,” The Economist observed caustically last summer, noting that during that year forecasts of combined sales of VR hardware and software dropped from $5.1bn to $3.6bn to the harsh reality of $1.8bn. But hey, one rough holiday season does not an industry make, right? Surely in 2017 things began to —

— oh. “Shock Stat: In 2017, VR Headset Shipments For Most Top Brands Went DOWN Compared To 2016.” So much for the many predictions that VR headset shipments would grow exponentially for years. Crow appears to be the appetizer for nearly every industry dinner these days. But that was before the Oculus Go, right? Except … the Go seems to have sold at most a quarter of a million units in its first few weeks, far behind the comparably priced Nintendo Switch released months earlier, and as I write this languishes well outside the top 20 of Amazon’s “Video Games > Accessories” bestsellers.

I mean. These aren’t terrible numbers. Sony’s PlayStation VR has sold almost 3 million units! … which is to say, it’s reached almost 4% of PlayStation owners. But aren’t VR and AR supposed to be the Next Big Thing, not the Next Little Niche? And doesn’t that mean their reach is supposed to grow exponentially, not linearly?

AR is in everyone’s hands, of course, courtesy of Apple’s ARKit, Google’s ARCore, Facebook’s AR Studio, etc. But, quick, name a popular/successful AR smartphone app a) that isn’t Pokémon GO b) doesn’t involve furniture!

If I’m pointing accusatory fingers at anyone I’m pointing them at myself. I too expected VR/AR to be much further along by now. I though we’d see hit games that could only be played in VR. I thought Pokémon GO, which launched twenty-three months ago, was the harbinger of a whole new wave of AR worlds, some of which would then begin to interrelate and cross over. In the long run maybe it will still seem that way. But in the short term —

— well, I dropped by the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara this week, and my main takeaway was that the industry has essentially abandoned the consumer AR/VR space, at least for now. Everyone’s aiming at AR/VR for work now. But how many jobs are there, really, where complex information needs to be accessed in a hands-free way? How many problems can be solved by VR conferencing but not videoconferencing? Sure, they exist, and the tech can be spectacularly great for them; but, again, for now at least, we’re talking Next Little Niche.

I did see one really eye-opening thing, which led me to the sudden belief that the humble QR code will achieve its apotheosis in mixed reality:

…but what use is a bridge between two worlds when nobody bothers spending any time in one of them?

“But gaming!” you say. “I mean, immersive storytelling!” Sure. I’m super excited about that too; I’m a novelist in my spare time, after all. And that is the industry bright spot right now; “location-based VR,” i.e. “VR arcades,” are growing in number, and they seem like an obvious fit with the recent upsurge of immersive theater such as Punchdrunk‘s Sleep No More, Meow Wolf‘s House of Eternal Return, and The Latitude.

…But all the VR / mixed-reality immersive storytelling I’ve seen has been really cool for about 15 minutes max, heavy on hype and buzzwords, and basically failed at telling anything more than the crudest of stories. “Rather than storytelling, you’re storyliving,” enthused some Industrial Light & Magic folks at an event I went to a few months ago, and that sure sounds nice — but the VR ‘storyliving’ I’ve seen to date is all far, far less sophisticated than that of even my teenage Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

I know. It’s the very early days of a new technology. It’s expensive. It’s still hardware-intensive. We’re still figuring out its best uses, and how it interacts with human physical location, and a whole new grammar of storytelling. But the Oculus Kickstarter launched almost six years ago, and I’ve seen a whole lot of VR/AR/mixed-reality demos since then, and every time, I walk away thinking: “This technology has so much potential.”

But in order to be the Next Big Thing at some point you have to actually start realizing your potential. Maybe Magic Leap will do it. (Not joking. At least, not entirely.) Otherwise, though, the disheartening truth is that, despite the low-price new standalone hardware, despite all the effort that’s gone into software and design and storytelling, I still don’t feel like we’re meaningfully closer to that than we were two years ago. Please, somebody show me I’m wrong.