The 18 year long search for a VR use case

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I designed my first virtual reality world 18 years ago in 1999, as a part of my education. I was using state of the art Silicon graphics computers for the rendering and deployed it on a server to be experienced through a VR headset. It was so cool, the first time I tried it. So what has happened the last 18 years? Not much.

The tech has improved of course. The real time graphics is much better than before  and we also have the ability to record movie experiences using 360 cameras to be used as a limited but still functional interactive world. However, the reason why VR did not have a major breakthrough 18 years ago was not the poor graphics or lack of video. The real problem were the use cases.

No one could figure out a case where the VR experience would be superior to sitting by a computer. The input devices with hand waving and pointers just wasn’t easier than using a mouse and keyboard, and walking around an object to look at it was not easier than just spinning it around in a computer. The real time offered some freedom but for educational purposes movies and books where you learn in your own pace was superior. The helmet was heavier than today’s Oculus or HTC headsets, but there was seldom a discussion about the weight. Instead the eyes hurt from the constant light.

So is there really not a single use case where VR is superior? When you do a quick google you find tons of reports by VR enthusiasts and the occasional press releases from Oculus and HTC. They talk about the uses cases being topics like education, entertainment and tourism. The things is, these are not use cases. They are just topics. Making a car go faster or reducing risk of heart failure, those are use cases.

I’m still hoping to see a great VR use case, but I don’t think we have seen it yet. VR is perfect for creating higher sensory experiences – meaning that wow feeling that people make when they experience VR for the first time; the vertigo you get from looking over a ledge or the emotionally sensation of being in an African village destroyed by a tropical storm. However, these cases are not enough to build a billion dollar business and there is no habit forming around it.

The VR tech needs to evolve into something closer to what Neo experiences in The Matrix before we can make the leap into true virtual experiences. But before that happens we still need to find the use cases where these experiences make sense and where someone is ready to pay for it.