VR is tangled in wires right now and we're trying to find a way out. Everyone is biting their nails and waiting anxiously to hear more about a little company called MagicLeap and their big promise-filled product. Meanwhile, rumor has it the HTC VIVE Focus is doing fairly well in China, and lest we forget the collective goosebumps Oculus gives us whenever they say those two words: Santa Cruz.
We are hungry for untethered, standalone devices. One of the biggest reasons is obvious: wires are an enormous setback for modern consumer tech (which is to say, they are the worst). My house is filled with smart house tech, like the Phillips Hue lights we have in every room, the WEMO plugs attached to everything else, and not one but TWO Google Homes in an apartment so small, they can actually can talk to each other. The list goes on, and yet despite all the work we've done to go wireless, all I could see were those damn wires behind the TV that were visible underneath our media console. That's why I spent a whole Saturday surfing the web and trying all the DIY solutions I could find (and it still only came out ok). There are always going to be attempts to untether our whole lives, because wires suck, and yet despite putting robots on Mars, this is the best we got. Don’t get me wrong, all my devices are great. But they are certainly not perfect -- not even close.
So anyway, you get it: I hate wires. And I’m sure you do, too, which is why they are among the top reasons consumer VR isn’t working. But PC VR doesn’t always mean tethered, so how will wires be its demise? Yes, the VIVE now has an add-on that untethers the headset and streams content from the computer. But that’s all we got right now in an already anorexic market (only 1.5M PC headsets have shipped over the last two years). Plus, it’s not perfect -- not even close.
Portability is also a dealbreaker. Smartphones are quite possible the most sought after consumer hardware worldwide as roughly 4B people have one of these portable mini computers in their pockets at all times. That’s actually the reason why mobile VR will never take off: who wants to disconnect themselves from the world while they are already inside an occluded headset? Plus the UX is all wonky, it’s 3DOF, it makes your phone overheat and taking the phone in and out of the headset is just the worst. I mean seriously, mobile’s done.
But PC… besides high costs, pesky wires, and a lack of portability, there’s the Apple mantra: people want pretty stuff that “just works”. By the time PC VR “just works” (because let me tell you, now is not that time), standalones will have made it irrelevant.
It’s no surprise that the two leading OEMs, HTC and Oculus, are creating their products’ own competition (and I bet Microsoft is, too). Oculus Rift sales have all but come to a halt and HTC is throwing almost all the VIVE’s weight behind wooing enterprise customers. PC VR will be what a room full of servers is to a Macbook: as Moore’s Law advances tethered VR exponentially, it will help these headsets outpace the needs of the consumer and have a price tag that only companies can pay. OEMs will keep catering their bigger and better tech to enterprise customers while creating the pretty stuff that just works for consumers. That’s why VIVE is planting seeds to keep their PC business growing while Oculus already decided to stop watering the plants.
So then is PC VR already dying? Sorta. Parts of it are necrotizing but what’s left is doing what it needs to survive. Enterprise companies could care less about pesky wires and clunky interfaces as long as it helps their employees, customers, and ultimately the bottom line. But consumers care about the exact opposite. We continue to buy $800 iPhones instead of Androids that are just as capable and half the price. And we just have to have a $1,500 Macbook even though we are just use it to do the same things we do phone, just with a better keyboard. Heck, Apple is probably going to slide into the lead doing what it always does: make other companies’ tech look sleeker while using its reputation to make theirs seem easier to use. But they are never going to do that with computer-powered VR, because they don’t have to.