Virtual Reality: An Innovation Yet to Deliver Its Promise

  • November 21, 2023

  • Rudly Raphael

There were promises of flying cars, a “The Jetsons” future, or even the hoverboard from Back to the Future. And here we are. Brands and tech influencers have notoriously overpromised and underdelivered. This pledge also includes a transformative reality akin to the Star Trek holodeck or being plugged into The Matrix – all via the allegedly game-changing solution known as Virtual Reality (VR).

And here we are, still spending most of our work and leisure time in the material world. So, what happened with the grand pledge of VR? Where were the misfires? Mind you, VR is not on the level of Google Glass, 3D television, Quibi, or other overhyped products that landed with a thud. An estimated 64 million Americans utilized virtual reality in 2022, with 171 million active VR users worldwide. Yet we aren’t spending our remote workdays in virtual offices with Mark Zuckerberg in the background telling us how to create pixel clouds. The tech is far from a failure but closer to a big disappointment. Finding out why is a vital cautionary tale. 

How it started

Welcome to the 1990s, when virtual reality surged in popularity and excitement. Many market analysts indicated that VR had the potential to revolutionize various industries. Brands invested heavily in developing VR technology while consumers eagerly awaited its brave new world. However, the technology was not mature enough to deliver on its promises. VR experiences were often clunky, expensive, and limited in content. These constraints, combined with the high cost of entry, led to a decline in interest and, ultimately, the fall of VR before the new millennium. 

But like The Rolling Stones or Twinkies, VR just wouldn’t go away. The 2010s marked a turning point for the solution. With advancements in technology and increased market research, VR made a comeback. Companies like Oculus, HTC, and Sony invested heavily in developing VR headsets that were more affordable, comfortable, and user-friendly. The release of consumer-ready devices such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive sparked renewed interest in being fully immersed in digital worlds. Content creators also recognized the potential of VR, spearheading immersive experiences across various platforms or channels. 

From a market research stance, the revival brought new hope for optimized and cost-friendly data, and we shall deal with the results in the last section.

How’s it going

The VR hype bubble quickly burst when both consumers and engineers accepted that the problem with VR tech was its, well, tech. It just hadn’t advanced enough to reach Star Trek or The Matrix levels. The current state of VR is a stalemate of advancements and limitations. On the one hand, VR headsets are more accessible for buyers, with a broader range of options, while immersion and visuals have improved significantly. On the other hand, challenges remain with the tech that include:

  • The cost of adoption is still a barrier for many consumers.
  • Need for powerful hardware to run VR.
  • Lack of widespread content and applications that fully utilize the potential of VR.
  • Experiences that didn’t meet the anticipation fueled by the pledges of dreamy-eyed Silycon Valley thought leaders.

Welcome back to the 1990s.

The Titanic of VR

The (virtual) elephant in the room has to be addressed: The Metaverse, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s pet project. Even more than VR, this all-encompassing virtual world was severely overhyped and delivered substantially below expectations. These were some of the shortcomings of the Metaverse:

  • The platform had no clear purpose; thus, few visited it. 
  • The Metaverse was not a game or a platform but rather an overlaid sphere of enhancements to everyday lives (mundane reality already does that well!).
  • The experience was initially wonky, and you know what they say about first impressions.

Experts also argue that the Metaverse failed to take off because it is outdated, misguided, and out of touch with the rest of Big Tech – a rehash of other popular but venerable digital worlds like Half Life or Roblox. This virtual reality heaven might have been a terrible gamble, for in 2021, Meta spent $10 billion on its metaverse division, Facebook Reality Labs, tasked with creating AR and VR hardware, software, and content. The investment is more than five times what Facebook paid to purchase the Oculus VR business in 2014 and 10 times what it spent to buy Instagram in 2012!

Despite this disappointment, there remains a steady development of Metaverse-type concepts, with some companies still investing in the underlying technologies – even as Meta has shifted focus to AI solutions like so many others in Silicon Valley. And it seems consumers have focused too on AI and other tech, as the overall AR/VR headset market declined 54.4% year over year in the first quarter of 2023.

VR and Market Research

Researchers have certainly leveraged VR in the last decade, primarily when the tech provides these advantages:

  • Brands can tap into VR to mimic real-life shopping experiences and product uses, allowing them to glean valuable data about their target audience’s preferences and behaviors (and without costly physical tests). 
  • VR eliminates geographical limitations in research. Companies can gather data from participants located anywhere around the globe. This opens a vast pool of potential respondents, ensuring a diverse and representative sample. Additionally, VR can target specific demographics and segments, allowing for more focused research efforts.
  • VR improves engagement and respondent participation during research by making the process more exciting and captivating, leading to higher response rates and valuable insights.

One notable VR market research success story comes from the Ford Motor Company. The company used VR Headsets and simulations in developing the Ford GT supercar to evaluate diverse design configurations in virtual environments. This allowed engineers to assess varied factors such as sightlines, interior controls, entry/exit openings, and storage areas without physical prototypes. Moreover, VR testing helped optimize the cabin layout, confirm maintenance procedures, and ensure easy accessibility of mechanical components. Ford was able to refine the GT model years before production! 

Another illustration happened when Nordstrom’s TextStyle service leveraged VR to provide personalized shopping experiences to customers by analyzing shoppers’ preferences and purchase history. Retailers and research firms can also experiment with different store layouts, product displays, and promotional strategies to measure customer responses and enhance their shopping experience by creating virtual store environments. As a last example, eBay collaborated with Myer, an Australian department store, and made a VR domain on its website to let consumers explore the store environment virtually.

The usual caveats remain: VR experiences are not readily accessible for medium and small-sized businesses, who, like many consumers, have limited funds, and the product is still far from integrated with the rest of the tech ecosystem. 

Ultimately, VR will continue to grow and adapt gradually – while staying attractive to deep-pocket video gamers – even if it’s not in the same salvific, culture-changing league as the internet, AI, or the smartphone. It remains to be seen if Apple and its Midas touch can make VR mainstream when it releases its (very expensive) Vision Pro in 2024. All of this relates to this famous quote by author William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Good luck finding VR, where it’s distributed for your future research, business, or entertainment needs.

About the author:

An industry leader and influencer – Rudly Raphael specializes in all aspects of research logistical design involving quantitative methodology,  implementing internal system infrastructure to streamline business processes, channelling communication and developing innovative research solutions to ensure Eyes4Research remains a competitive force in the marketplace. An entrepreneur, inventor (patent holder), blogger and writer – his articles have been published in various magazines such as Medium, Ebony Magazine, Bussiness2Community and also cited in various journals and academic publications.