VR apps over the holidays — proof for my theory?
A few weeks ago I wrote in VentureBeat about why, in the short term, augmented reality (AR) is where it’s at. VR, while a thrilling and dramatic experience, has some major shortcomings: as there currently isn’t much great VR content, its ecosystem is fractured by many hardware and software solutions, and the experience is the opposite of communal given that it cuts you off from actual reality. 2016 wasn’t exactly the banner year that many were expecting for VR, though whether that’s just “growing pains” or an indicator of inherent problems with the platform remains to be seen.
Over the holidays, I did a little experiment: theorizing that Google Cardboard and other VR headsets like Samsung Gear VR would be at least somewhat popular stocking stuffers despite the middling annual sales, I kept an eye on how VR apps like VR Crossy, End Space VR, and Roller Coaster VR were doing over the holidays. Sure enough, for a few days after Christmas, a dozen or more VR apps were in the Top 50. And then they weren’t. VR remains a bit of a novelty as opposed to a habit-former. Users try it once or twice and then move on. And while this is anecdotal, one of my colleagues recently told me that she has had Cardboard for months and has used it just twice: she and her seven-year-old son watched “Pluto’s Frigid Heart”, a VR experience by the New York Times, once each. She said that while they both enjoyed exploring Pluto with Cardboard, neither of them picked up the device again. “If I could watch something with my son in VR, maybe that would be different,” she told me. “But I actually find it frustrating not to be able to see the same thing he’s seeing and talk about it as we see it.”
And that’s exactly my point, as I noted in the VentureBeat article. VR in its current incarnation stumbles into and remains in the novelty category because it’s inherently isolating. Humans are social, and we like multi-tasking, and with most VR right now you can’t enjoy content with your friends or do other things like text or check your Facebook feed while you’re consuming it. You’re in it alone.
AR is already well on its way because of the early successes of Snapchat and Pokemon GO, and because it has easier revenue potential. There’s also the fact that it can more easily integrate with other systems and it requires less in terms of hardware. But while these are all valid reasons why AR will be more successful than VR (again in the short term), I think the biggest one is rooted in human nature. Until VR becomes communal and sticky — the way AR can easily be — AR will continue to outpace it.