Don't believe the hype: Virtual reality is not the next big thing

Is VR just too isolating and limited to be the next big thing in computing?

If we are to believe companies like Facebook and Google, as well as pretty much every major tech blog, in just a matter of years we will all be walking around wearing headsets and living our lives in virtual reality.

That may be a slight overstatement but there is no denying that in Silicon Valley and beyond, virtual reality is seen as the next big thing and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google want to make sure they are at the forefront of the next computing revolution.

This week Intel threw its hat into the ring with Project Alloy, a standalone headset which the company’s CEO Brian Krzanich said could ”redefine what is possible with computing.”

Unlike Facebook’s Oculus Rift of HTC’s Vive virtual reality headsets, Intel is calling its technology merged reality — combining a virtual world with elements from the real world. This is along the lines of Microsoft’s HoloLens, a headset it calls a holographic computer, and the highly-secretive Magic Leap technology, something the company calls "mixed reality", where digital objects are  overlaid onto the real world around you, allowing you to interact with them.

Intel Project Alloy - Intel has this week launched its Project Alloy headset with technology it calls merged reality, combining the virtual and real worlds in one.

But whether you call it virtual, augmented, mixed or merged, the reality is that these types of technologies have been around for decades in some form or other and while the price is now at a level where it could become a mainstream product, the simple fact is that virtual reality will always be a niche technology.

Having tried Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive and Sony’s upcoming Playstation VR headsets, I can say that virtual reality is an amazing experience. Sounds and images are vivid and immersive. You are plunged straight into a world entirely different from the one around you and within seconds you forget about the headset you are wearing. It is easy to imagine spending countless hours lost in these worlds.

But all of these experiences have come at conferences or trade shows where the manufacturers have spent a lot of money on purpose-built areas to showcase the technologies. Replicating that in your own home is difficult without a lot of time, money and space.

On a more casual level devices like Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s basic and cheap Cardboard VR offer a glimpse at the world of virtual reality, but as these use your smartphone to power the experience they are limited and lack the immersion of the true VR headsets.

The big challenge for the companies telling us that VR is the future, is convincing us why we would need to use virtual reality.

Aside from gaming, and some commercial uses, I cannot see why an average person would use virtual reality on anything like a regular basis. The use cases for VR being espoused by these companies just don’t ring true.

Watching film and TV content while wearing a VR headset is among the most frequently voiced use cases. But most people who can afford a high-end VR headset are likely to own a decent TV which is much more comfortable for watching a movie, particularly if more than one person wants to watch it. Yes film companies may in the future be able to create VR versions of their films, but just like the 3D phenomenon of recent years, this is likely to be limited to a once-off experience in cinemas kitted out with VR headsets rather than a Friday night on the couch with the family.

Oculus Rift - The Facebook-owned Oculus Rift is one of the best known of the current crop of VR headsets and promises an immersive experience. Credit: Facebook

Facebook is pouring a lot of money into VR (it acquired Oculus for $2 billion in 2014) and it has big plans to bring its social network to this computing platform. But you just have to interact with the graphic at the top of this Bloomberg article to see what a horrifying experience Facebook VR would be, and know that no one would ever want to use it like this.

But what else are you going to be using VR for?

By its very nature the technology is limiting. Fully immersive headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive need to be tethered to a PC to work properly, while standalone headsets like Gear VR need you to remain seated when using them. Intel’s Project Alloy could offer some more freedom, but as no one has seen it working yet, its potential remains unclear.

Even merged or mixed reality headsets like HoloLens or Magic Leap, which allow you to see the world around you, are still going to be limited in terms of battery life and computing power. Remember Google Glass?

Yes gaming will be revolutionised by the advent of better and relatively cheap VR headsets, and there are some obvious business applications — travel companies letting people see exactly where they are going for example — but for the general public, VR will not become the next major computing platform. It is too isolating, too limiting and let’s not forget, makes you look a bit silly.