Exploring VR’s accessibility problem

In December we looked at the huge challenge facing virtual reality (VR) in 2018, as the industry attempts to prove there’s substance to the hype.

Now, in the first of our series delving deeper into what’s holding us back, we want to talk about accessibility. That is, how easy it is for the end user (you know, normal people) to pick up VR.

Possibly the biggest barrier faced by the average consumer is cost - you’re looking at several hundred dollars for a solid headset, before you factor in the need for expensive additional hardware to actually run the thing. Of course, Google Cardboard offers anyone a taste for around $25, but it’s a stretch to call it ‘immersive’.

The next rung of the ladder is occupied by more robust devices like Samsung’s Gear VR, but the experience on offer is still somewhat behind today’s market leaders. The obvious ones are the HTC Vive ($599) and the Oculus Rift ($399),  but the true market leader in VR hardware today is PlayStation. 

In Q3 2017, Sony shipped close to half a million units of its console-compatible VR headset worldwide - by comparison, Oculus sold 210,000 and HTC 160,000.

PlayStation’s biggest advantage may be its dependence on hardware that ‘normal’ people may have already invested in for their entertainment needs. Both the Rift and the Vive, on the other hand, need a powerful PC companion - and that’s before you take into consideration NVIDIA’s belief that less than 1% of PCs available today can comfortably run the most sophisticated VR software. You can see why they’re not yet in many living rooms. Cost aside, they are still the only devices publicly available that offer anything close to true immersion right now. Their main draw is support for ‘room-scale tracking’ - meaning you can physically walk around a small space (just under 5m x 5m for the Vive) while wearing the headset, rather than using a separate controller for movement.

But, as we’ve explored before, there are still a few things missing when it comes to a feeling of agency; of believing for a split second that you’re truly there, in the moment. 

Virtual Reality Kit

With the rebirth of stereo 3D, we rediscovered a whole bunch of problems innate to the medium - it’s not a very good approximation of the human vision system. Unfortunately, right now, everything in VR is predicated on stereo 3D headsets, and all the limitations historically associated are still there. On a positive note, with what we know so far about Magic Leap’s mixed-reality glasses, some aspects of this look like improving in the relatively near future - beginning with addressing eye focus. And our friends at Starbreeze continue to update their incredible Star VR headset - while it’s not yet commercially available, its massive 210-degree field of view removes the feeling of looking down a tunnel that you get with many other devices.

This year, HTC is also likely to release the Vive Pro - a lighter, more comfortable iteration that offers significant 10m x 10m tracking capabilities and the highest-resolution screen seen on a consumer headset to date (a 78% resolution increase on its current version). Perhaps most revolutionary, however, is the promise of full wireless functionality. 

There’s only so much you can do with Vive’s current headset, or the Rift for that matter, before you get yourself tangled in knots or feel the limit of the wire’s length yank you back to reality. But a wireless solution will provide a level of freedom never experienced before. 

That said, how many (normal!) people do you know with free access to a 10m x 10m space, or $1,000 spare to buy the kit? From a purely cost and convenience point of view, how many people reading this article could justify that sort of investment versus, say, sticking with the TV and gaming devices they already own?

Headsets - and the additional hardware needed to feed them - remain a luxury item. And despite the cost, with the content often lacking somewhat, it’s one that still doesn’t quite feel like a luxury experience.

Set for Virtual Reality

If most of us are still a few years off top notch, affordable hardware, the answer for now might be out-of-home experiences. Most recently, London’s Westfield shopping centre has played host to The VOID’s Star Wars experience, ‘Secrets of the Empire’. The VOID has popular, permanent locations in the US and, more recently, China - not the only out-of-home experience on offer for Far Eastern technophiles.

In a bid to boost VR’s opportunities in homes, Oculus has open-sourced its latest development kit, ‘DK2’. Oculus hopes to “preserve and share what we learned about VR in the early days, and to let anyone use the design in their own projects”.

And there are plenty of other hardware developments to get excited about, beyond Oculus and Vive. Avegant’s Glyph headset, for example, replaces the now-traditional screen-in-goggles model with millions of microscopic mirrors that project LED images directly into your retina. 

Far beyond the in-arcade offerings of the Nineties and Sega’s fateful VR foray of ’93, the investment and technological advancement we’re seeing today suggests the battle to bring such experiences to the mainstream is far from lost. 

Next time, we’ll look at the VR content being created and the companies trying to propel the industry forward.