This article is Part 2 of a multi-part series. You can find Part 1 here.
In Part 1, I went over the very valid reasons people are skeptical of VR technology. As recently as 5 years ago, VR was clunky and blurry. Now, things are improving, and Oculus (owned by Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook) is selling affordable VR headsets that give a fairly good experience.
More Realism Is Possible, But It Ain’t Cheap
The Oculus Quest 2 that I own is powered by what is basically smartphone hardware, but optimized for VR applications. It’s great for what it is, and the kids and I have had a lot of fun with it. I’ve even experimented with using it for work. But when I want even more realistic experiences, the headset just doesn’t have the graphics oomph I need.
Fortunately, you can connect the VR headset to a desktop or laptop computer to give it more power. I’ve used mine with a computer I originally built for processing 4K video, and it gives some very good results. With 12 processor cores, a professional graphics card, 64 GB of RAM, and a high speed solid-state drive, the computer is great for playing VR games via the Oculus Link cable.
One thing we’ve experimented with was DCS World, a flight simulator that the US Air Force uses for pilot training and practice hours. With realistic controls and a realistic cockpit view, it’s good enough for professional pilots. Another thing I’m getting into is “sim racing,” where you build a realistic virtual car to sit in. The sky’s the limit on what you can spend building a sim racing rig, but with a good quality force-feedback steering wheel and pedals, a powerful computer, and a decent seat, you can get a driving experience that professional racecar drivers approve of.
On the Star Wars front (sorry, I’m a big fan), there’s even a computer-based VR game that gives a very real-feeling experience of flying X-Wings and TIE fighters if you use a joystick with it.
In other words, home virtual reality is getting to the point where it can provide realistic experiences with good graphics, but these really realistic experiences aren’t cheap. At minimum, you’ll want to invest $1000 in a very basic gaming computer to do this. My computer cost $4,000, and it still has some shortcomings. Add realistic controls for vehicle-based experiences like flying or driving, a motion chair or platform, and you could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars.
Only the most dedicated gamers, sim racers, or the United States government are going to spend that kind of money, though. Even a $300 VR headset (mine, with more storage and accessories, cost about $600 in total) is a stretch for most households.
People are willing to lay down that kind of money on a computer because you can do more than just VR with a computer. You can use it for school, work, and 2D play. You can surf the web. You can watch videos, and do many other fun and/or useful things. Even gaming consoles are more widely useful for most people, as you can play with the whole family, use it to watch Netflix and Disney+, and do many other entertaining things in the living room.
So we’re still at a point where expense is going to keep many people away. They just don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on something they don’t think will be broadly useful. This does explain why Meta/Facebook’s presentation on Thursday spent so much time showing possible applications for VR and AR — they want the public to think it’s worthwhile to buy something like an Oculus Quest 2 and future devices that are even better.
As Technology Improves, Prices Drop — But Will That Be Enough?
Let’s look back at the 90s again. My first computer I owned only had a small fraction of the computing power that my smartphone does today. In fact, it was less capable by far than even the cheapest of Chromebooks that go for around $150. Even the computers I had ten years ago were weak by today’s smartphone standards.
Today’s most expensive VR experiences show us that VR is basically viable, but mass adoption will require both drops in price and a shift in public perception.
Price drops, as we know in the computer industry, are inevitable. The price the customer pays probably won’t drop, but the capabilities of the hardware will improve drastically in the next five years. This will enable the realism my rendering computer allows for today, but in a more compact, portable, and cheap package.
The shift in public perception will need to surround what a consumer thinks the hardware is worth. Today, most people don’t think VR is going to be useful or fun enough to lay out $300-600 for. Meta and other players in this emerging corner of the computer industry (I’ll get to that in a minute) need to convince the public that buying not just one VR headset, but one for everyone in the household, plus AR glasses, is a good use of money.
Other Players In The Metaverse Industry
Before we get into the possible benefits, it’s worth quickly discussing that Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) is not the only company working on this Metaverse theory.
Another big player is Roblox. If you have kids, you might know what Roblox is. It provides kids a relatively safe environment where they can not only play games and have other virtual experiences, but create their own games and virtual worlds. The graphics generally aren’t realistic (at all), but the idea of managing a multitude of virtual worlds is central to the company’s existence. Even if you aren’t using it, your kids probably are, and they’ll likely keep using it after they’re adults. So yes, they’re going to be a big player in the Metaverse that Zuckerberg described.
Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Nvidia, and a variety of other companies have been talking about being players in the Metaverse in recent months, too. It’s also very possible that Neuralink could become a player, as brain-machine interfaces could far surpass any headset or other gear in terms of realism.
Bottom line: This isn’t just some zany idea Zuck came up with. It’s something the whole industry is moving toward. I wouldn’t call this a sure bet, because changing public perceptions of VR and AR will be a big challenge still, but the variety of companies involved, including those popular with kids and teens, means the idea probably has enough staying power to succeed.
Saving Lives & The Environment
In Part 3, I’m going to explore how the Metaverse can save lives and protect the environment if it succeeds in winning over the public and achieving mass adoption the way smartphones did.
Featured image: a screenshot from Meta’s presentation showing two men remotely playing chess in a park. One appears from elsewhere and looks like a Force Ghost from Star Wars. The other changed his avatar to have a lion’s head, for fun.