The Next Generation Of Virtual Reality

I’m writing this at a contemporary teak desk in front of floor to ceiling windows overlooking a lake surrounded by forested mountains. My laptop screen is displayed on a monitor a few feet away with a  60” screen, crisp and bright. The keyboard of the Macbook Air is on the desk in front of me with my hands on it.

It’s my office in Horizon Workrooms, the virtual reality business environment from Facebook/Meta. (I’m just going to call it Meta from now on. I know, it doesn’t sound natural yet, but we have to get used to it, it’s the name of the company now.)

I’m wearing the new Oculus Quest Pro VR headset, introduced a few weeks ago. In the next article I’ll talk specifically about the new Quest Pro. Today it is in a special category by itself. It will be joined by Apple’s device in a few months. The Quest Pro (and presumably the Apple headset) is:

(1) Wonderful! Amazing! Huge advance over anything else!

(2) Expensive! OMG who would do that holy crap my eyes are watering my spouse must not find out expensive!

Before we get to details about the Quest Pro, let’s look at the big picture.

We’re at the beginning of a new generation of virtual reality headsets. Although they will never be mainstream devices like phones, a lot more people will be buying them in the next year or two for gaming – and who knows, perhaps a few people will even do work and socialize in VR.

We’ve already gone through several generations of VR headsets. There were early experiments like Google Cardboard, which would hold your phone and give you a simple VR experience when you held it up to your face like an old-fashioned Viewmaster. There have been many more or less successful VR headsets in the last few years that require a cable connected to a gaming PC or Playstation. The Oculus Rift was a solid choice for a couple of years, and today the Valve Index, HTC Vive Pro 2, and HP Reverb G2 are great tethered VR headsets for gaming PCs. Resolution and field of view have been steadily improving.

Meta changed the landscape with the untethered Oculus Quest, currently in its second iteration as the Quest 2 at $399. For the first time a VR headset was self-contained, no cable needed. A new generation of games take advantage of the freedom of movement – think VR versions of sports like tennis, or fitness workouts, or longtime favorite Beat Sabre, which has you swatting at passing blocks to the beat of terrible music. The Quest 2 has good battery life, a surprisingly crisp display, several great games and a reasonable selection of pretty good games.

In the last couple of years, many smart people have spent a lot of money improving the technology. The next generation is arriving now, starting with the Oculus Quest Pro. The road ahead:

Apple will introduce its first AR/VR headset in the first six months of 2023, price likely to be two thousand dollars or so.

Sony just announced Playstation VR 2, available on February 22 for $549.

At some point next year, probably October, Meta will introduce the next generation Quest 3, priced for normal consumers and expected to be a giant leap forward from the Quest 2.

That’s a lot of new devices. Some of them will be affordable, all of them will be easier to use and with better games and apps available than ever before. There will be lots of attention paid to VR in the next year.

Don’t be confused. Nothing will change in the big picture. Let’s recap:

VR headsets are not going to be mainstream devices.

They are not going to be adopted broadly by businesses, even if the companies promote business uses for them.

Few people are going to socialize in virtual worlds, AKA “the metaverse.”

But it’s a big world and the notion of “a few people” needs clarification. Meta has probably sold more than ten million Quest 2 headsets by now, although it won’t release numbers and the company providing that estimate at the end of 2021 backtracked a little and said, well, maybe, hard to be sure. Almost certainly there are a lot of headsets that are purchased and used for a while and then put in the closet to gather dust for a variety of reasons.

So, sure, millions of people, but lots of things get the attention of millions of people these days that we still consider part of a small niche. MrBeast expects to raise $150 million for the empire being created from his 100 million YouTube followers. You don’t know who MrBeast is, and that’s my point – audiences of millions don’t mean as much today as they did a few decades ago. Even if millions of people own VR headsets, that doesn’t mean you’re missing anything.

Set aside the cost for a minute. Let’s do generalizations about who might want to buy a VR headset in 2022, regardless of cost. The idea is that VR has reached the tipping point where it will survive as a meaningful part of the tech market, even if it never achieves mass adoption.

If you’re a gamer, VR is just about ready for you. It’s still a little thin on AAA games but there are good ones available now and more in the pipeline. Gaming in VR is fun! Half-Life Alyx is the single best game I’ve ever played in more than 30 years of PC gaming.

If you’re a developer who might write the Next Big Thing, the companies are prepared to beg and plead with you to start working on VR games and apps.

If you’re an early technology adopter with spare cash, it’s the right time to jump in. There are a variety of good VR experiences, not just games.

But there’s an important caveat.

You might get sick.

A meaningful number of people get nauseous when they put on VR headsets – 40% to 70% by some estimates, more women than men. Some people get used to it with experience, but many just can’t spend any time in VR, period.

There is no good way to know if you’re one of those people unless you try it. In the same way, there’s no way to convey how much fun it is to use a VR headset without trying it. And you can’t try it unless you know a nerd well enough to ask her to loan you her headset, which has goo on it from her hair and the bridge of her nose, so eewww.

That’s a hard problem, perhaps the single biggest hindrance to widespread adoption of VR. Also, there’s the unavoidable problem of looking like an idiot to anyone who sees you wearing the helmet and waving your arms around, so let’s say there are two big reasons why the headsets wind up in closets.

In the next article I’ll tell you about the Quest Pro, which is one of the most impressive tech devices I’ve ever owned. I feel fortunate to be able to afford one. Also that it’s tax deductible because of articles like this. And I don’t throw up when I wear it, which is a big upside. Maybe I’ll convince you to try it, or at least to look forward to one of next year’s VR headsets. Who knows? Maybe we’ll meet in the metaverse sometime soon.