Even if you already knew this, a new study proves it: “High-performance” VR platforms are becoming more popular, while “mobile VR” is losing ground. Users, developers, and manufacturers appear to have given up on Google and Samsung’s smartphone-based VR peripherals, implying that we’re watching the category’s dying last gasps — at least, as we’ve known it.
Consider this week’s I/O conference if there wasn’t already enough evidence of mobile VR’s demise. After arousing fears late last year by remaining mute on its Daydream VR technology, Google remained silent on the matter again during its I/O presentation. It hammered more nails in the coffin by removing Daydream support from its latest Pixel 3a phones and informing reporters that it is now focusing on virtual reality services.
Following Samsung’s stealthy exit from the mobile VR market last year, Google has issued a wake-up call to Daydream consumers and developers. Though the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S10 are technically compatible with 2017 Gear VR sleeves, those and prior Gear VR accessories have been discounted and are no longer addressed at Samsung events.
The exits of Google and Samsung from the mobile VR pool would have left the pool empty a few months ago, but Nintendo chose to join in with cardboard Labo VR kits last month. You can argue whether they’re “mobile VR” (since they require Switch handhelds instead of smartphones) or even real VR (because the hardware is barely stereoscopic, lacks a head strap, and is both low-res and low-frame rate), but if Google Cardboard qualifies as mobile VR, so does Labo.
Typically, a late arrival by any firm would be insufficient to save a dying category. Still, we’re talking about Nintendo here, a seasoned portable device maker who isn’t concerned with “high performance” hardware and is only concerned with having fun. Even though Nintendo bungled it with the Virtual Boy two decades ago, the Switch is hot right now. VR continues to pique the interest of millions of people, and Nintendo has fantastic distribution. More than anyone else, Nintendo has an opportunity to sell a lot of affordable VR kits in 2019.
However, just like its non-VR Labo predecessors, it doesn’t take much time to use Labo VR to demonstrate that it lacks engaging long-term experiences. Users who purchase the entire $80 package are likely to spend more time putting together cardboard components than playing Nintendo’s rudimentary VR minigames, ranging from unfinished demos to somewhat entertaining fetch quests. Worse, VR DLC for Mario Odyssey is over in just 15 minutes, and a VR update for Zelda: Breath of the Wild will have you nauseous and bored in about ten minutes. Best of luck to everyone else if Nintendo can’t develop Mario or Zelda VR experiences worth playing.
It’s because of encounters like this that mobile VR has a terrible image. After spending $80-$150 on a Google, Nintendo, or Samsung VR attachment, the most frequent user experience appears to be a series of short, unimpressive VR sessions that lead to the user shrugging and tossing the accessory into a drawer. Some users keep the headsets around for the occasional film or game. Still, without significant investment from platform developers, the devices become stuck in a never-improving cycle: developers see low usage and reduce content creation, while users keep leaving due to a lack of fresh material.
According to a new IDC analysis on typical usage of high-performance VR devices, mobile VR isn’t the only section of the market with this issue. Even those who possess the most expensive headsets spend six or fewer hours per month in VR, with only 12% reporting 16 or more hours per month. However, the lack of high-quality experiences is particularly noticeable in the mobile VR sector, maybe because smartphone consumers have generally been unwilling to pay much for software and have only purchased VR because of low-cost peripherals.
I’m not ready to proclaim mobile VR dead just yet, even though it appears to be on its deathbed. For one, we haven’t seen Labo VR’s ultra-low-end sales figures; also, something new and not wholly distinct is on the way, albeit whether you term it high-end “mobile VR” or low-end “tethered VR” depends on your point of view.
Qualcomm’s XR Viewer program will allow Android users to ditch their bulky cardboard and fabric smartphone sleeves to favor mixed reality headsets that look like glasses and have customized screens, relying on tethered phones for processing. Compatible phones will include Snapdragon chips significantly quicker than those seen in previous-generation mobile VR devices, and the hardware will handle both augmented and virtual reality.
These XR Viewers and whatever else Apple is working on will undoubtedly pressure existing “high-performance” VR device developers. With smartphone-dependent VR/AR/XR devices on the way, I believe businesses like Sony, Oculus, and HTC will need to reassess their pricing strategy, though I’ll be the first to say that it won’t be easy.
According to IDC’s analysis, hardware bundles and software pricing are the top concerns for potential VR buyers, and anecdotal data appears to support this. Sony presented new packages, published new titles, and reduced prices around the holidays, which boosted PSVR sales. Sam
attempted to market the Odyssey+ tethered PC headset for $499, but it offered substantial (40%) discounts to move units after a few months. Soon after, Oculus shelved plans for a more powerful Rift sequel in favor of something considerably more straightforward, which the company decided to maintain at $400.
Another problem will be market ambiguity. Although consumers have more VR gear options than ever before, several significant players are abandoning their platforms. No one wants to spend a lot of money on gear that won’t be maintained in a year or two.
My opinion is that VR hardware manufacturers should consider the remaining market as “mass market” and “non-mass market,” rather than “low-end” and “high-end.” Years of evidence suggest that VR headsets costing more than $299 will not be mass market, with sales in the tens or hundreds of thousands rather than millions. For a long time, the price tags of $199 and $299 have been regarded as miraculous consumer electronics product inflection points. For every company that succeeds in breaking that rule, there are legions of companies that mistakenly believe they are immune and fail to do so.
After seeing what happens with Facebook this year, we’ll have an excellent idea of where things are headed. Last year, Oculus Go was released as a standalone VR device for $200, but it did so by relying on a mobile chipset and taking costs in other areas. As a result, it attained mass-market success, but it is limited to movie playback and other inactive activities.
As a result, it appears as Oculus Quest exists purely to provide the additional processing and tracking features that Go could never incorporate for $200. Quest is no longer mass-market inexpensive, and it’s still weak at double the price. It’s questionable whether it will be
ll, given that nothing VR-related seems to reach velocity at a $400 price range.
With so many new devices reaching the market, the second half of the year will be particularly fascinating for budding VR platforms. Though mobile VR as we know it is unlikely to be as crucial in the future as it has been in the past, established VR device makers like Sony and HTC must begin planning now for a lot of change in both the tethered and standalone sectors, which quite different competitors might soon dominate.