In recent months, we’ve seen a number of announcements by some big tech companies that they're shuttering various virtual reality (VR) initiatives and products. People have asked whether this means the VR industry is withering away. Not to worry, VR isn't dying on the vine, even though we see stories about well-known enterprises temporarily stepping back or holding back from investing in the space. Let’s explore these VR trends and what they mean to eLearning professionals.
Which companies are stepping back for a bit?
It seems virtually all the big tech companies are reticent to invest in VR at the moment. Augmented reality (AR) is faring a little better, but not much. For example:
- Google is stepping back from VR. Google invested heavily in VR over the past few years, but more recently, they have canceled certain products and gone silent on others. Google invested early in Magic Leap, an innovative AR headset, but development of this product has been sluggish, and early reviews of the SDK (software developer kit, or pre-launch beta version of a product) have been disappointingly tepid.
- Apple has held back from investing in VR. They have worked on some AR projects, but most are still in development.
- Facebook bought Oculus, the popular maker of VR headsets, and they keep launching new and better VR headsets at multiple price points. However, Facebook seems only partially committed to VR, as their hardware and software products remain fragmented and isolated, not connecting and playing nicely with each other.
- While Microsoft is moving full steam ahead with its HoloLens AR headset, they have pulled back on their VR initiatives.
- Amazon has been fairly silent on both VR and AR thus far, with the exception of their recent launch of Sumerian, a VR, AR, and 3D experience development platform.
- Other players such as Samsung, PlayStation, and HTC periodically release new versions of their flagship VR headsets. However, industrywide sales have not met anyone's early expectations, and most VR headsets still feel heavy, awkward, and limited.
Why they're holding back
Big tech companies are holding back from VR for several reasons, first and foremost being that they haven’t defined the problem or need they’re trying to solve for the end users. It’s the classic mistake of a solution in search of a problem. Another way to put this is that there's little money to be made in VR yet.
In addition, the VR industry hasn't grown as quickly as everyone predicted. Most of the applications are for entertainment, as opposed to business or productivity. Relatively few people own VR headsets. The technology hasn't progressed quickly enough, as it’s still expensive, clunky, and somewhat low quality. It turns out relatively few people enjoy wearing nausea-inducing shoeboxes on their faces (i.e., VR headsets). Go figure.
Further, the platforms are disconnected and proprietary, making it harder to use VR headsets. That is, there is no "internet" of VR yet. There is no public access Metaverse or Oasis, as described in Snowcrash, Ready Player One, and other sci-fi stories. Bandwidth and server costs are partly to blame, but it's also an incentive alignment issue. That is, the tech giants don't seem to want to invest in and build infrastructure they can't completely control and directly profit from.
Some companies are shifting their sights to AR. AR has much bigger potential, for both enterprise and consumer applications. However, the development of AR is a few years behind VR, so we don't hear as much about it yet.
Why none of this matters to eLearning professionals
Fortunately, the trend does not impact eLearning professionals much, if at all. In fact, we shouldn’t worry too much about this temporary slowdown in the VR industry. Nearly all emerging technologies experience something similar, as explained by the Gartner Hype Cycle. The whole XR industry (i.e., VR, AR, MR, 360 video, haptic devices) is still squarely in the Trough of Disillusionment. However, VR is close to exiting the Trough, and AR is not far behind. For example, AR glasses—which might not hit consumer markets for a few more years—are a looming game changer because of their focus on productivity, communication, and moment-to-moment usage, much like smartphones do now. As a result, most of the big tech companies are now investing heavily in AR. We can expect to see more exciting developments in this space in the next few years.
Also, small companies are picking up the slack while the giants are sleeping. This means opportunity for all of us small fish exploring the many wide open niches within the largely uncontested “blue ocean” XR market. Indie developers are launching innovative XR software and hardware products seemingly every day. This also provides opportunities for companies to create in-house teams that build XR training simulations or customer retention experiences.
Even without further technological development, XR is already useful for many eLearning projects. For example, VR can be highly effective for training simulations, educational games, and immersive storytelling experiences, even if there are still a few drawbacks to the technology.
How we can protect ourselves
Although the tech giants’ reluctance to invest in VR doesn’t impact most of us directly, we can still mitigate the potential risks this trend could pose to our own projects and teams. First, anytime we build something in any form of XR, we can build for multiple platforms and hardware devices. This is a form of insurance, given that we never know which ones will last and which will disappear next year. Second, we can build our apps and experiences in more than just XR, as cool as those technologies are. Instead, we can build for mobile and laptops, too. That way people won't be forced to play, learn, or train in XR. In other words, XR can be a nice optional feature, but not a requirement. Third, and most importantly, we can keep creating innovative new projects. We can build the future of XR together, shaping it to fit our needs, whether the big tech companies keep investing or not.