Like the old saying about there being no atheists in foxholes, it seems that anyone who has donned a virtual-reality headset quickly transforms into a true believer. Count us among that camp — the immersive experience produced by media darling Oculus Rift or the recently announced HTC Vive, is nothing short of revolutionary. But should we put real money right now into a set of our own? Here is where we pump the brakes.
Consider 3D TVs, which a few years back promised to usher in a new age of home entertainment. Now "3D-capable" is a throwaway line on HDTV spec sheets. Ditto for the ultimate emperor-wears-no-clothes collective hallucination that was Google Glass. Both products were the result of astounding and impressive engineering and design work, but ultimately were doomed because their reach far exceeded their grasp.
There are two reasons for their failure to launch. The first is the lack of content. When it comes to either of these technologies, and especially with 3D movies and video, to this day there just isn't much to see or do with them. Then there's the problem with requiring a user to put on headwear, of any sort. No matter how great the underlying tech, people are social creatures, and these devices — yes, even 3D glasses — are isolating. People don't like looking ridiculous for long stretches of time, and that's the hallmark aesthetic to all these devices.
That goes 10x for noggin-spanning VR headsets that causes wearers to grope and stumble around the world, occasionally vomiting afterward as penance for the pleasure of it.
But as the New York Times has shown us with their innovative stint into VR journalism, not all virtual experiences require hours of awkward, pricey headsets to have an impact. An astounding VR experience requires only a smartphone, cardboard with two pieces of plastic, and quality content. This is where VR technology may turn out to have a leg-up on 3D and Google Glass: Media companies are investing in it.
That's especially true in gaming, for which consumers are used to laying down large amounts of cash for high-performance hardware and pricey media. Sony, which recently announced their Playstation VR set also promised over 100 titles to be launched with it. When you're paying upwards of $600 for the hardware (the cost of Oculus; rumors have it Sony's set may set you back $800), you better have an experience that will wow. When those games are released — and no demo that we saw at this year's Consumer Electronic Show yet showed us an $800 experience — then it may be worth the investment, for gamers. For the rest of us, well, for now we’ll have to settle for a $24 Google cardboard headset and enjoy the incremental innovation, from the comfort of your phone.