Will VR Finally Make it Through the ‘Hype Cycle’ Now Apple is in the Game?

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Chloe Preece is Associate Professor of Marketing and Academic Director of the MSc in Marketing & Creativity at ESCP Business School (London campus)

Research shows that VR struggles to live up to its potential and that its appeal is curbed beyond any initial excitement. As a result, the technology is used less than other entertainment devices due to barriers specific to the medium that either prevent engagement or accumulate to cause the user to decide to stop engaging entirely. There is therefore a need to minimise or modulate these frictions, which Apple’s new product may help with.

Time magazine once announced that virtual reality (VR) technology would “change the world.” Indeed, since Facebook paid $3 billion for headset maker Oculus VR in 2014, VR has been widely proclaimed as the ‘next new thing’ in consumer entertainment and of course, we know that Zuckerberg has pinned the future of Facebook on VR with his purchase of Oculus and rebranding to Meta.

Despite these hype-filled promises and the increased access of VR headsets, VR is still far from a mainstream technology. While revenue from gaming sales topped $185 billion in 2022 and is expected to keep growing at 8 % annually until 2027, VR headsets (only 21.75 million pieces had been sold in 2022) are not living up to expectations.

What is the Metaverse?

The metaverse has been widely proclaimed to be the future of the internet. Definitions of what exactly the metaverse is, however, vary significantly. This lack of coherence is due to the metaverse being still largely speculative, only in the process of being built. In fact, the term does not refer to any specific type of technology but rather a broad shift in how we interact with technology.

The metaverse has three main characteristics: a sense of immersion, real-time interactivity and user agency. To achieve these features, it is generally thought that the metaverse will include virtual reality – the use of three-dimensional computer graphics technology to generate artificial environments that afford real-time interaction and exploration and provide the user with an impression of being present or immersed in this computer-generated world – and augmented reality, which combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds.

The consensus is that these new forms of experiencing will enable us to move beyond the flat screen medium we’ve gotten so used to, simply looking at for the last 100 years, and move towards persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you are not immersed in them. Ultimately, it is thought the metaverse will include platforms and devices that work together seamlessly where thousands can interact simultaneously.

We are, however, still far from reaching this, partly due to such a world requiring private companies to cooperate in a way that is currently neither profitable nor desirable to them. Perhaps, then, it will be a multiverse of metaverses, and given the dangers of a single-owner metaverse, this is probably a more preferable fate in any case.

Fad or the future?

Given this evolving vision of the future, it is perhaps more interesting to think about how the concept of the metaverse and its immersive technologies are used as a powerful marketing

vehicle for speculative investment. The futures imagined include both utopian and dystopian outlooks, but it is clear that the metaverse has served as a powerful vehicle to oversell new technologies.

Indeed, the history of tech is littered with failed investments, as Google Glass can attest to. The tech industry depends on futurism. However, the metaverse is currently still clunky Zoom calls and a few fun VR games and digital avatars. In fact, currently, Fortnite is perhaps the closest we have come – although the use cases for the metaverse are predicted to go well beyond gaming. This is not to say that there is not huge potential in these technologies, yet beyond all the hype, they are still to have a significant impact on our lives. Why is this?

Headsets ‘gathering dust’

While most people have used AR in the form of filters on their phones, immersion into a virtual world is still largely restricted to early adopters. Our research (which used market leader Meta’s Quest 2 headsets) highlights a range of ‘frictions’ which impede the user from completing or continuing their use of the headset. These range in significance but include:

  • Contextual factors – for example, lack of time as VR competes with other commitments and other forms of media entertainment
  • Logistical concerns – for example, insufficient play space and related safety concerns
  • Physical factors – such as discomfort, motion sickness, eyestrain and headaches
  • Social frustration – VR is perceived as isolating and poor in providing the ability to foster interactions with other people remotely
  • Lack of sufficient varied content

We found that VR requires a high level of commitment from the user: entering the VR experience is not without effort. Rather than just watching or being told a story, the user is inside the story, engaging with it and experiencing it in a more intimate way. In deceiving users’ senses to make them feel like they are present in the virtual world, VR takes a cognitive toll.

The transition into and out of VR is therefore crucial and this highlights the significance of careful on-boarding and off-boarding to help users transition successfully and mitigate many of these frictions. Our research showed that currently, the headset was not found to be engaging enough to be used regularly but rather, it was relegated to something to pick up on special occasions.

While the introduction of the Quest Pro in 2022 made some strides toward improved performance, graphics and ergonomics, critics quickly noted it was actually heavier than the Quest 2, had a shorter battery life, and the much-anticipated mixed reality “passthrough mode” was grainy and fuzzy.

The future is… spatial computing?

Now that Apple has entered the game with a new headset – albeit at a staggering cost of $3,500 –, the metaverse may be one step closer. Indeed, the iPhone is the most successful consumer product in history, the app store is one of the most accretive business models in history and Airpods are probably the most popular wearable with 90 million sold during the holiday quarter of 2021 (people wear them even when they’re not using them), providing a portal into at least an audio Metaverse.

So, will Apple succeed where Meta has so far failed? While it is too early to tell, it is clear that in prioritising the user experience, Apple may go some distance in overcoming the many frictions involved in transitioning into and out of the virtual. Some of the early feedback suggests that the precision eye-tracking and hand gesture control is seamless. Clearly, Apple will eventually need to invest in content and bring the price down but this headset may actually be one the user wants to use.

In putting the focus on spatial computing and avoiding any mention of the metaverse, AR or VR, Apple has neatly sidestepped both the hype and the perceived flop of its main competitor in this space; investors have called on Meta to reduce its spending on the metaverse as it has cut into its profits. In sum, Apple’s user-friendly design magic has significant potential for the long run and developers will now be racing to discover what spatial computing’s killer use case might be.

About the Author

Chloe Preece is an Associate Professor of Marketing and Academic Director of the MSc in Marketing and creativity at ESCP Business School (London campus). Her research focuses on marketing within the arts and creative industries and how this translates into social, cultural and economic value.

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