Credit: Everett Collection

Of all the various technologies and trends competing for attention at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, virtual reality occupied a special status: It was paradoxically the most anticipated and talked about tech, but also the one that inspired the most abject derision. 

To be fair, both points of view have merit. For starters, there is a bona fide gold rush going on with VR, and nearly every company we saw had some take on VR or its sibling, augmented reality. But then electronics companies as a group never fail to reverse that great maxim of business — under-promise and over-deliver — and instead tend to deliver nuclear levels of hype that reliably makes any product a disappointment. After nearly a week’s worth of talking tech with peers and industry reps and luminaries, we think that unlike recent high profile flops such as 3D TV or Google Glass, VR is going to be a major influence in all of our lives, but likely not in the ways we think about it now.

Already there are extremely powerful virtual reality experiences available, as anyone who has tested out Oculus Rift or similarly top-shelf goggles will attest. While they may not feel exactly like real life, they do feel sufficiently immersive that it’s easy to suspend disbelief. (And we will never get sick of watching videos of people falling over while wearing goggles.) This immersive feeling is the killer app: It’s transportive, making one truly feel as if they are existing in another realm, even if it isn’t exactly like real life.

As a concept this is extremely attractive both to consumers and electronics companies but also content creators, from video game makers to traditional film and television producers. Already there are a half dozen or more goggles available for viewing VR content, such as from Sony, HTC, and Oculus/Facebook, among others, as well as loads of more basic goggles for viewing 360-degree video, which is sort of VR light. And VR was a topic addressed in some way at every press conference we attended — in fact the entirety of Intel’s press event was about the coming VR revolution, and the company distributed some 350 goggles for attendees to wear during its presentation. And that’s kind of the problem.

We have no doubt that in the short term, there will be a market, maybe even a substantial one, for goggle- and earphone-based entertainment. For games it’s only a matter of time that VR headsets will be standard in the way headphones were with the advent of the Xbox. And the idea that some completely new form of entertainment might evolve in the coming decade the way film, radio, and then TV did in the last century is exciting stuff. It might be a group thing where visitors from across the globe attend concerts or clubs or simply meet-ups where we interact with each other in cyberspace. You might be able to run on the field in the middle of your favorite NFL or soccer game and see Messi’s footwork, or stand on the baseline of Wimbledon and see what it’s like to face the barrel end of a serve by Andy Murray. Maybe.

What’s more likely though is that the downsides of the current goggle-based paradigm for experiencing VR will condemn it to a niche product, somewhat in the way 3D has limped along in theaters but utterly failed on the home front. Many have complained that the goggles are relatively expensive and require heavy-duty machines to run them, but really that’s small potatoes — prices always drop and, nowadays, pretty quickly. 

The bigger issues aren’t so easy, though. For one, an unknown but anecdotally large number of people get nauseous or feel disorientated, even ill, from experiencing even a few minutes of VR, and those effects may last hours or even days after extended VR use. This has led one VR expert to suggest such devices be banned altogether, presumably due to the danger of having all these spaced-out, effectively drunk, people heading out in cars or in public. (And, indeed, during Intel’s press event, the company had barf bags at the ready in case of an incident, though none were reported.)

There are ways to mitigate these physical effects, and it may be they will be solved somehow in the future by a technical breakthrough, but for us the bigger issue is the notion of wearing goggles at all. Three-D is a failure not because the technology isn’t amazing, or it’s too expensive to produce, it’s because people hate having to procure, and maintain, and have on hand and physically wear glasses to view it, period. No matter how light or even stylish, it’s a non-starter. 

That makes goggle-based VR, no matter how enticing, terminally doomed as a mass pursuit. We might one day have a set on the shelf as we do binoculars for special occasions, we might break them out for the Super Bowl, even, but we won’t be sitting around as a family wearing them every day.

So where will VR succeed? Our conversations with one VR engineer from a major company, who shared our skepticism of the goggle hype, said that there will still be all kinds of ways that VR will be put to use. It may enable new ways of experiencing design and architecture, or for solving engineering problems anywhere on the planet or in far space, for creating new industrial purposes, or simply for training (an ongoing practice for decades in the military). But his focus was on the incredible firehose of video and data we are already able to produce that’s only skyrocketing, along with powerful processors that will some day soon come together and allow for a version of Star Trek’s holodeck — an infinite, imagined world you inhabit without having to don specialized equipment. Now that sounds worthy of hype.