Why Virtual Reality Will Never Be a Mainstream Entertainment Platform

virtual reality
Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shutterstock

Virtual reality revenue will explode more than tenfold over the next four years — to some $75 billion worldwide in 2021, according to one recent forecast.

I’m sorry, what? That’s just virtually insane.

The delirious growth expectations for VR are triggered by investments by the likes Facebook, Samsung and Google, which made several VR announcements this week at its annual I/O developers conference, among others. If they’re spending billions on this stuff, there’s gotta be a market there — right? But I think the fantastic projections for VR’s prospects amount to the tech industry huffing its own hype fumes. There are several roadblocks to VR becoming a big business, and none of them will be easily overcome.

Virtual reality makes for a fantastic demo, and it’s become an au courant accoutrement at film fests. At the Cannes Film Festival this week, Alejandro G. Iñárritu is showing his VR documentary on illegal immigration. The director said virtual-reality filmmaking represents “an art in itself.”

Sure, it’s a groundbreaking new frontier and, for some, an exciting new canvas to work on. But in the everyday, relax-and-unwind real world? I just don’t see a VR future as envisioned for us by Silicon Valley’s engineering brain trust making major inroads in the living room. We’ve seen a version of this movie before: 3DTV, which was hamstrung by the same clumsy headgear and lack of compelling content.


VR binge viewing Guinness World Record

VR Binge-Viewing World Record Set at 50 Hours

I would wager that for most regular people — i.e., not tech types or bleeding-edge creatives — VR doesn’t pass the must-have test.

Bellying up to the VR bar requires too much effort. It’s an investment in time and money for something that — let’s be honest — you’re really not going to use much. (Unless you’re like these two guys, who last month set the Guinness World Record for VR binge-viewing at 50 hours.) Vertical wind tunnels for indoor skydiving are cool, too (as are, say, IMAX screens) but it doesn’t make sense to have those in my house.

More to the point, VR’s immersive, solitary confinement simply doesn’t square with how people consume entertainment at home. Never mind that you can’t interact in-person with another human being with a Google Daydream, Oculus VR or Vive headset strapped to your noggin. We need our field of vision free in order to continually glance down at our smartphones: According to Deloitte’s 2017 “Digital Democracy Survey,” 99% of millennial and Gen Z viewers engage in an average of four other activities while watching TV (such as texting, using social networks, reading email or shopping).

Then there’s the fact that VR requires a caffeinated level of engagement. You have no choice, locked in the cage of a VR headset, but to pay constant attention. It calls to mind the behavioral-modification scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” where Alex’s eyes are kept pried open.


gewecke at VRTL

Warner Bros. Chief Digital Officer: VR and AR Have Huge Potential

To me, it feels like work. In traditional visual storytelling, the whole reason to have directors and editors is to provide a (literal) point of view. VR demands that you, the viewer, take on those duties. In a virtual-reality experience, I’m always anxious that I’ll miss something important if I’m not looking the right direction.

Traditional TV shows and movies, the killer apps of home entertainment, are non-interactive at a storytelling level — and people like them that way. Your average American doesn’t want to expend an undue amount of brain cycles concentrating on watching a baseball game or “The Big Bang Theory.” But what about video games! you may exclaim. Yes, that is a form of interactive entertainment that’s a gigantic business, and VR has specific applications in that segment.

The question is: How much does a virtual-reality environment enhance the power of storytelling? I’ve seen dozens of VR experiences over the last few years, and I always come away thinking that I’d have enjoyed it more on a traditional 2D screen.

Meanwhile, I haven’t yet talked about how goofy VR headsets look on people.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe VR will catch fire once really amazing stuff that takes advantage of these platforms produces some truly unique experiences. I’m generally skeptical, though, when there’s a Shiny New Technology Thing that’s supposed to knock my socks off. Take, for example, the hypothesis by Twitter and Facebook that conjoining live sports with social interactivity into one screen is just amazeballs. Last year, I criticized Twitter’s implementation of live-streaming video alongside a torrent of tweets as a “distracting mess” — and was called an oldster who just didn’t get it.

I am a lot more bullish on an area that often gets paired with VR: augmented reality, which superimposes virtual stuff into your real-world view. We have already seen major AR hits in the form of Pokemon Go and Snapchat’s selfie filters. Facebook is bulking up on AR, too. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he used to think augmented reality would require special-purpose glasses. Unlike VR, of course, it doesn’t.

As for VR, I understand why there’s enthusiasm for this new way to experience video content. It’s often fun. And it’s also exhausting and, at the end of the day, too big a commitment for your average consumer.

VR probably has a great future as a segment of the video-game business; as a training tool; and at events and entertainment venues. IMAX believes VR has a future in the cinema, just as 3D movies in theaters do today. But even there, how big can virtual reality really become? I don’t see how VR can deliver enough bang for the buck to ever become a mass consumer market.

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  1. Anne says:

    I am a user of Second Life and understand the potential of VR. You will interact inside of FB and Twitter and live your own story not watch someone else’s. You will store memories, videos, pics, have land that is designed anyway you want it and fly on unicorns with your friends. Generations will build land and meet together from anywhere in the world and interact. It is not entertainment is will be another form of living. Some will remain outside and some will be in. It’s not entertainment it’s a new way of life. People don’t understand the potential of this technology. We won’t need Facebook and Twitter once we are inside that world. They know this and everyone is trying to keep up with Sansar and other soon to come programs. You can’t look at this as a game or entertainment but being able to jack in to a new grid and be anywhere and do anything by putting on a VR rig. Who wouldn’t want to meet up with mom and dad across the world for Christmas in our virtual real estate island where daughter Mary has a castle she built on and brother Larry has a plane. This is going to be the new world.

  2. Joey Sylvester says:

    Please go and play farpoint with an aim controller or RE7 and tell me again how VR does nothing to improve a game

  3. Geo says:

    VR is for more than just entertainment. We’re already seeing huge growth in areas like manufacturing and design. VR allows architects to see inside their buildings before they’re constructed. Doctors can visualize exactly where the tumor is before they operate. Applications like these and so many more are where a good portion of the $75 billion will come from.

    The entertainment applications will not be what we expect in terms of traditional motion picture storytelling. That’s not going away. VR will create whole new genres – probably more interactive and immersive. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

  4. shanemn says:

    Stop with the 3D TV comparison. They are not even the same ballpark. VR/AR is much bigger then entertainment, the utility in industry is almost limitless (Engineering, Architecture, Education, Medicine, Psychology, Sociology, Occupational safety, Public Safety, Hospitality, Travel, Real Estate…) If you think this is about playing games or watching movies you need find the nearest door and get out of that box you’re stuck in.

  5. Greedo says:

    I just played Farpoint with my VR AIM gun. I was on board a space station at the loading screen and in awe as I was looking out into the vastness of space with the sense of security of being in my little comfy space station….

    I saw my favorite alien series last night….great move…. but I often found myself wishing that it was in VR…because the loading screen of Farpoint was more immersive than the entire 2D movie in the theater….

    Nice article though… I clicked it and registered my email. Click bate FTW

  6. anon says:

    I tried Google Cardboard and after a few minutes I started to feel a bit sick.
    People are trying to solve the nausea.
    Henry is right though; this could easily be the next way to surf the internet……it could become ubiquitous…..combined with reality in daily environments.

    Maybe even using regular look Spangler glasses.

    People are very motivated and very sophisticated……and technology increases in quality continually.

    There is financial incentive to make it happen.

  7. Sxean Lee-David says:


  8. J. Bradley says:

    The thing is, you think it HAS to be a MASS consumer commodity. If it hooks a third of consumers, that might be as good as it gets or it might grow further over time. Because It’s not 100 percent adopted, It’s a failure, goes the mentality. Some movies available in 3D have 40 -50% of their sales for the 3D showings, but because it’s not 100%, it’s a failure. Let’s drop the format! Learn that it’s a variated market that’s being created and new forms are being created. If they can sustain themselves, fine. If they end up dominating, that’s fine too. The only problem is with those too invested in the established mediums that fear new ones, that might compete.

  9. Barry Allen says:

    Seems like a typical response from another Variety reviewer who is merely capable of repudiating facts they saw on a spreadsheet rather than engaging in the multiple different levels of overlaid storytelling both IMAX VR, Oculus, and others already offer. Great way to refute progress made in a stagnate entertainment industry with no clear hypothesis for an alternate direction for which the industry might embark upon.
    Clearly this is not a substitute for Television or Theatrical releases, and broad, sweeping generalizations like the one(s) made above only stunt growth and innovation. VR can be a new frontier for the millions of people looking for further interaction and detail in already engaging storylines. Maybe it’s not for the masses, or to be used as a direct alternative for traditional models of entertainment consumption, but it certainly is another format that does/will allow creatives to expand the boundaries in which they are currently confined.

    • iamsheep says:

      He’s right though…VR is an interactive experience that is unsuitable for narrative storytelling. Film and television is an expression of the director where the composition of a fixed frame, editing, sound and acting creates the final product. VR should instead be for presentations, documentaries (some not all), games and porn….

      • Eli says:

        You clearly never played a game like Life is Strange or any other story-based game, otherwise you’d see how out of the loop your comment is. The future of storytelling IS in Virtual Reality, watching and interacting with a movie with all its ramifications and dialogues you’d never have with a 2 hour movie. Plus, that’s how the new generations deal with narrative, including binge watching shows on Netflix/Hulu/Amazon.

    • Henry says:

      Respect this guy for actually saying what he believes though. I mean many journalists probably think the same they just wont publicize it. But i disagree with your belief that this article will hurt investment. Vr will massively change the world as it becomes of higher and hifher quality. It might be 13 years before it is really amazing or 5 no one really knows but it will alter the world just like electricity or cars. It is amassive advancement and it will be more obvious over time. I would recommend road to vr to really keep updates on whats going on with vr in regards to its development.

    • Todd Spangler says:

      “Maybe it’s not for the masses” <— right, that's my point

      • Henry says:

        Todd please delete this article. In the future you will be be cited and mocked. Just please for your sake please delete this article.
        This reminds me of someone mocking the invention of the telephone or planes or cars or the internet. Like just stop.

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