The reality of virtual reality 

VR seems like it is dead because its boosters failed to make the case for it, but the technology is still plugging away in the background, says Jason Walsh
Image: Sound On/Pexels

26 May 2023

2022 was an interesting year in technology, arguably the first after a decade of little more than uninspiring iterations of existing devices. Artificial intelligence (AI) was clearly the story of the year, with the November launch of ChatGPT appearing to come out of nowhere. At the same time, much-hyped technologies, not least among them virtual reality (VR), failed to take off. 

That does not mean, however, that VR should be consigned to the scrapheap of technological history alongside non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the get rich quick dreamland of Web3.

The truth is that VR took such a severe kicking in 2022 because of the follies of one single company, Meta Platforms. Plans by the erstwhile Facebook to reorient itself around the idea of creating a 3D internet called the metaverse were met with a collective yawn from everyone except investors (who instead screamed). Apart from the vast investment this plan required, it was far from clear that there was a significant number of people who wanted to transport their social lives into a dematerialised fantasy world. In addition, Meta’s efforts were lacklustre, to say the least.

But the problem was not simply that Meta’s plans were half-baked. Indeed, Meta’s error was as old as VR itself. The truth is that VR has, since the 1960s, been a technology that has always been right around the corner, with just one more technological development needed before it goes mainstream. And yet, not only do headsets remain clunky, no-one has ever been able to explain why we should abandon the physical world for a digital one. Meta and others have consistently overstated VR’s benefits, in the process making it seem faintly absurd.

Really real virtual reality

Despite this, VR is not dead. According to a survey published by Statista, 51.1 million VR headsets were shipped in the past five years. Some of this appears to be the pandemic effect: over 65% of total sales were made in 2021 and 2022, making both record years for VR shipments. 

At the same time, clearly these are not insignificant numbers. Indeed, a scaling down of aspirations from science fiction-inspired visions of the metaverse results in VR once again becoming a viable technology.

Gaming is the obvious application, of course, but there are others. While VR-enabled entertainment other than video games seems as unlikely a prospect as 3D television (remember that?), immersive environments and moveable virtual objects are useful elsewhere. Suggestions that we might sit in a café and strap on a headset to work on, of all things, “CRM [customer relationship management] and spreadsheets” are laughable because the application of the technology brings with it nothing useful. As far as boosterism goes, such ideas are fairly thin gruel.

And yet, VR and its close cousin augmented reality (AR) have clear industrial applications. Sectors such as manufacturing are already using it to augment computer-aided design (CAD), while even areas as humble as real estate have found uses for digital twins and headsets. Training, healthcare and any area in need of simulation, too, could all benefit from the ability to immerse ourselves in virtual spaces. The future of VR probably won’t include socialising, or CRM for that matter, but it would be unwise to write its obituary.

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