Is VR going to be the next big thing?

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Yesterday at the start of Mobile World Congress, HTC dropped one of the few genuine surprises so far: the Chinese phonemaker is partnering with Valve to build a virtual reality headset.

htcheadset

The move is one that will excite gamers. Not because of HTC – but because Valve, which made its name with Steam and Half Life, could conceivably do some very exciting things. In fact, the whole VR space is currently hugely exciting: The Oculus Rift is still making waves, Microsoft’s HoloLens has captured imaginations with its augmented reality vision, and just on Thursday I tried out Roto, one of the inevitable plethora of accessories to make VR even more immersive.

All of the major tech companies are currently either confirmed to be working on a VR headset – or are strongly rumoured to (in the case of Apple).

But here’s the thing: is VR REALLY going to be the next big thing? I’m not so sure.

We recently saw the killing of Google Glass by Google. Despite the space-age feel of the device, it just didn’t take off – partially because wearing something on your face is weird. VR will have the same problem.

And whilst VR gaming, and VR movies are sure to be exciting, is that really going to be the way we want to consume content in the future? I can’t help but think back to a few years ago when 3D was being positioned as the next must-have feature on TVs – which is now dead in the water.

Why? Well, you have to wear some stupid glasses – and to get the most out of it you have to devote 100% of your attention to what you’re watching. And this is exactly the same problem that VR will have. If you have to strap on an Oculus headset then there’s no more playing on your phone whilst watching TV… and who watches TV like that any more? And god forbid if you ever want to speak to your family or loved ones whilst gaming.

There’s also the inevitable headache. One of the big complaints with 3D was that for many people it caused headaches – and VR technology still risks doing the same, due to the disparity between your eyes seeing movement and your body not moving. Whilst a rotating base like Roto attempts to address this – it is unlikely to fully solve the problem in its first iteration.

Where VR could possibly succeed is in more niche interests. For example, amongst the sort of hardcore gamers who will buy a steering wheel accessory, or amongst industry where people can’t easily use their hands (Microsoft’s HoloLens demo includes someone explaining how to fix a sink – so you can imagine plumbers using them).

But the rest of us? Call me sceptical, but I’m not so sure that we’ll all soon have VR goggles strapped to our faces.

James O’Malley