Will This Be the Year That VR Finally Goes Mainstream?
💥A Boom with a View💥 is a column about startups and the technology industry, written by Erin Griffith. Find them all here: fortune.com/boom.
Virtual reality is greasy. That’s all I could think as I wandered through the vast labyrinth of digital screens—the widest, flattest, clearest, shiniest, newest models in the world—at this year’s CES in Las Vegas. At the sprawling technology trade show, I was eager to sample the latest in VR, a technology that’s been hyped for a generation but remains a novelty to most people. Each headset I tested left me with a distinct urge to rub hand sanitizer all over my face.
Still, the view from inside the virtual world is striking. In one demo I was transfixed by a trio of body-painted Cirque du Soleil contortionists five feet in front of me. I looked to my left and let out a tiny gasp as a tiger waltzed by. Later, I carefully traversed a (real) rope bridge over a (virtual) snowy overpass. I took in the Milky Way while reclining in a $7,000 full-body massage chair. (I endure these hardships for you, dear reader.) On the CES show floor, long lines formed around VR “experiences” that looked like carnival attractions: a virtual boat ride with nausea-inducing seats, a virtual plane ride with Top Gun–style twists and flips, a scream-inducing virtual spaceship ride.
I could tell which people were experiencing VR for the first time by their dazzled expression after they removed the goggles. But without the trade show’s spinning chairs or relaxing massages, the novelty of virtual reality quickly wears off—especially when you notice the $800 price tag (excluding accessories). Cheaper headsets feel heavy after a few minutes. Some models are difficult to focus. All of them feel greasy. With the exception of elaborate gaming setups, you’re unable to move around (you can’t even see your hands), so the fun part—taking in the 360-degree views—requires awkwardly swiveling your head.
Worst of all, VR is isolating. Beyond the delight of watching someone else’s first virtual reality experience (a moment Samsung promoted aggressively in a holiday ad campaign for its Gear VR headset), secondhand VR is no fun. The headset-headphones combination that virtual reality requires takes “phubbing”—snubbing your real-world companions for the digital distractions of your phone—to a new level.
VR amounts to exhilaration followed by discomfort and apathy—an emotional journey that mirrors the technology’s trajectory as a business. After years of barely containable buzz, Facebook’s Oculus Rift fb and HTC’s Vive htc became available last year, only to suffer from shipping delays and order cancellations. VR headsets and software missed sales predictions by 29% last year, bringing in just $2.7 billion, according to Digi-Capital, an M&A advisory firm. As a result, Digi-Capital slashed its sales projections for the market to $25 billion by 2021. It estimated that VR’s more social cousin, augmented reality (e.g., Pokémon Go), would generate a whopping $83 billion by the same date.
The hype surrounding VR today reminds me of the early days of 3D printers: In the future, every home will have one! Except every home didn’t need one, and they remain an expensive curiosity to most. Based on price and entertainment value, VR is in the same spot. Right now virtual reality is best experienced in a crowded, noisy convention center in Las Vegas—a place anyone would be eager to escape. Just bring your own Purell.
A version of this article appears in the February 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “(Virtual) Reality Bites.”