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The potential of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) is certainly not a new topic of conversation, but it might become much more relevant again this year. Despite a prolonged period of VR optimism back in 2016, adoption rates have so far failed to meet expectations, with less than one in five Americans having ever used VR as of 2023.
To be sure, 2016 was a watershed moment for VR, with the long-awaited consumer version of Oculus Rift and Sony’s PSVR, prompting tech journalists to declare it “the year when VR goes from virtual to reality.” Businesses clamored around the tech’s potential, with industry leaders describing different ways VR could revolutionize their marketing.
Google trends show VR and Virtual Reality searches peaked in 2016 — only to start declining from 2017 onwards, marked by the occasional spike prompted by new industry announcements. However, with WWDC around the corner once again, 2023 may be the year VR re-enters mainstream consciousness as Apple brings its pioneering marketing and pricing strategies, acclaimed hardware design and sleek UX (user experience) into the virtual world.
1. The power of pricing
Apple’s impact on the smartphone market is universally known. I fondly remember 2007 when the first iPhone was introduced — it cost an eye-watering $499, but this was balanced by network deals that offset the cost, subsidizing payment in exchange for a 2-year contract. Apple made this genius move, creating a de-facto standard of selling expensive consumer devices in exchange for forced loyalty. Some $499 for a phone, even inflation-adjusted to $720 today, no longer seems unreasonable.
In 2023, Apple may try to replicate this model’s success by subsidizing the $3k price of a VR device, offering a 12-to-24-month repayment period. However, even with a pricing strategy that historically locks in consumers and iPhone user figures consistently increasing year on year, a $3k consumer expense might not be well timed, given the cost of living crisis in key markets, including the US and UK.
2. Comfort and content
It is very likely, however, that one of the key success factors for Apple’s device will be how long people can actually use it without discomfort. For many, this is currently only around 15 minutes, and it seems Apple can’t afford to release a device with such high fatigue potential. The weight of the device on the head, how it stays in place when a person moves and how it rubs against the skin and reacts to sweat are all concerns, and that’s before we even consider the motion sickness some experience in VR — which is some two-thirds of people, according to a 2021 study of 4,500 German VR users. Given all that, tackling this long-standing industry hurdle of making VR headsets more comfortable to use should be a priority.
Another important factor is that content is still king with a medium like VR. Focusing on hardware alone — however elegant and refined — will fail, so even if the headset is a technical wonder, the question remains: what are we expected to do with it?
VR’s cornerstone is games, but not all gaming genres translate well to VR. The fast-paced, frenetic movement will cause nausea pretty quickly, so a different pace and approach is required there. Also, Apple’s gaming reputation has faced some criticism as of late, largely due to what the app store offers.
Sure, Apple Arcade — a paid service — has been praised for curating lists of quality mobile gaming experiences, but for the rest of the app store, shallow free-to-play games designed to squeeze money from players, and games with more ads than actual play, are all to be quickly experienced and then forgotten.
While Apple’s games strategy seems to require a significant overhaul, streaming and other content could provide a secondary audience. VR in education, manufacturing, shopping and healthcare are useful, but still niche. Currently, it’s not clear what use cases Apple will focus on given its core competencies, other than perhaps streaming Apple TV into a VR headset.
3. Leisure time and closet space
Another battle Apple faces globally is the lack of free time that many people experience today. The 4-hour life concept suggests a typical worker has only four free hours a day, and Apple’s VR headset will be fighting for a chunk of that time against a heavily saturated entertainment tech market (in addition to other pastimes). User experience will be essential for the device to be used repeatedly, even in short sessions, without it suffering the same fate as a tennis racket, which is often used three times before always resting in the back of the closet.
Speaking of closets, another issue is space. When the VR headset is not in use, it needs to be stored somewhere. While the device’s dimensions are unclear, we can use a human head as a reference. So, it’s fair to assume that the headset will become yet another item sitting in a living room or, god forbid, a bedroom. As a fan of decluttering, I’m already concerned.
So, as Apple prepares for WWDC in June, throwing its headset into the ring, we’ll almost certainly see a spike in VR-focused discussion and debate. However, unless content, comfort, technological advances, cost and strategy are all perfectly aligned, chances are this launch and the mainstream interest in VR may become just another short-lived spike.