Virtual Reality’s Human Problem


Image by Pexels from Pixabay

By now, we are all supposed to be wobbling around our living rooms banging our shins on furniture with VR headsets while spending our evenings enveloped in the warm embrace of the metaverse, making all kinds of new friends who have no legs. Yet neither VR nor the metaverse has taken off. What happened to the VR boom? And what happened with Augmented Reality (AR) too?

It’s worth exploring and understanding, as it points to an interesting point in time with how culture is adopting digital technologies. It also helps explain why Gen Z are turning to flip phones from the early 00’s and similar technologies.

VR has consistently failed to meet projected demand in a global, mass consumer market. It’s questionable that it ever will. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a market for VR headsets and mini-metaverses (which already exist as entertainment platforms like Roblox.)

I’m not referencing industry market reports on growth because none of them have come close to reflecting anything they’ve projected as reality for the past decade. They’re also mostly sponsored by the companies making the technology to help them put a nice graph on a pitch deck or investor presentation. They in no way reflect reality.

The biggest reason that limits mass consumer adoption has to do with one issue. Humans. Most research by VR companies developing these headsets have tended to focus on issues like depth perception, headaches, eye strain. These are human issues, but are directly related to basic usability of the product.

Little research has been done into how humans would actually use them, such as for how long or how the technology fits into lifestyle. In other words, human behaviours.

A common challenge I encounter with tech companies all the time is that they see “users” rather than humans. That’s when they say “but we approach all design with empathy.” Which is good, but empathy is not a gateway to understanding human behaviour.

Then there’s culture. Whether a technology thrives, survives or gets put into a niche is ultimately decided by culture. It’s been that way since we started using a stone axe nearly two million years ago.

In cultural terms, VR is looking very much like it will, for at least a while, perhaps a long while, be placed into niche markets. That niche is highly specific use cases. Short bursts of entertainment (humans don’t like to wear things over their eyes for very long, it’s a lizard brain thing), training in healthcare, manufacturing and military.

VR also rests quite firmly, culturally speaking, in the “nerd space” for gamers and highly technical types. A VR headset also faces economic stigma for many. They are expensive and often require additional expenditures such as a PC or gaming box. This keeps it out of reach for a mass market. Even Apple’s potential VR headset release is estimated to be around $3,000. It will likely end up in Apple’s dustbin of failed products.

Niche plays can be highly profitable when done right. Headsets with accompanying high quality content such as for telemedicine, training surgeons and military training offer extremely profitable opportunities. The same for the manufacturing sector.

The broader mass adoption of VR will take a lot longer than is expected, perhaps so long that AR glasses or some other technology will supersede it and gain faster mass market appeal. This would make VR headsets more of a transitional technology than a revolutionary one.

A focus on niche markets by key players can also help in cultural adoption. As always, the most meaningful of technologies that impact critical systems, take much longer to be adopted. AR, despite some excellent developments by Apple, Google and Samsung, hasn’t quite taken off in cultural adoption terms either.

For VR companies, their best play would be into niche vertical markets like manufacturing, healthcare, gaming and military. There they can better focus on human, not user, issues. In the meantime, our shins are safe.



Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Foresight Analyst | Innovation Architect | Celt