The Oculus Rift Won’t Make Virtual Worlds Mainstream

Ever since the first Oculus Rift prototype came out, there has been an incredible amount of buzz about how it will ignite a new age of mass-market virtual reality. I’m not so sure.

The Oculus Rift is certainly fun to try. Whenever Oculus goes to a conference, there’s a long line of people to test their latest headset.

The Kinect sensor for Microsoft Xbox 360 was also fun to try. When it first came out, it sold like hotcakes. People were eager to experiment with the various Kinect-compatible games. Then they went back to their game controller, keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen. The Kinect is still there, it’s just not a selling point anymore. It’s a niche thing.

There are some applications where a VR headset is definitely useful. An obvious one is architectural visualization: architects can give their clients real-looking, immersive tours of building designs. Architect Jon Brouchoud’s company, Arch Virtual, is offering that as a service, and I gather it’s doing well, which is no surprise.

VR headsets may be popular for first-person shooter (FPS) games as well. While that is a big market (in terms of revenues), only a minority of the population plays FPS games.

The Oculus Rift headset will probably cost $200 or more. That alone makes the market much smaller.

Will there be a mass-market application for the Oculus Rift? Many people seem to think that some kind of virtual world will do the trick, something like Neal Stephenson’s metaverse (as portrayed in Snow Crash), or the OASIS in Ready Player One. But those were works of fiction, not tales from an inevitable future.

I’ve been involved with general-purpose virtual worlds long enough to suspect that they’re niche products. Some people think that the failure of Second Life to become mainstream is Linden Lab’s fault. If only they did [insert change here]! I think general-purpose virtual worlds only appeal to certain people. They have limited use cases. They’re niche.

Linden Lab still thinks otherwise. That’s why they’ve started their project to create a whole new virtual world based on the latest technology, as if that will attract more people. I doubt it will work. Dean Kamen can load the Segway with all the latest technology, but no matter what he does, the Segway will always be a niche product. It wasn’t obvious: it looked like something that everyone might want, but it wasn’t.

I suspect general-purpose virtual reality is the same: it looked like it might be a mainstream product, but empirically it isn’t. The best technology in the world won’t change that. Not even the Oculus Rift.

Photo credit: “Comfy Cozy” by Vanity Mirror (Flickr name) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.