Remember virtual reality? Its buzz has faded at CES 2019

Remember virtual reality? Its buzz has faded at CES 2019
Oculus VR headsets are on display at CES International, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Just a few years ago, virtual reality was poised to take over the world. After decades of near misses, the revolution finally seemed imminent, with slick consumer headsets about to hit the market and industries from gaming and entertainment to social media ready to hop on the bandwagon.

But the buzz over VR has faded to a whisper. At the CES 2019 tech show in Las Vegas, Facebook's Oculus unit isn't holding any glitzy press events, just closed-door demos for its upcoming Oculus Quest, a $399 untethered headset due out in the spring. Other VR companies are similarly subdued. HTC announced two new headsets—one with only sketchy details—while Sony has some kiosks for its $300 PlayStation VR set in the main hall.

It's a world away from the scene a few years ago, when VR products from Samsung, Oculus, HTC and Sony seemed omnipresent and unstoppable at CES. These days, VR is mostly a niche product for gaming and business training, held back by expensive, clunky headsets, a paucity of interesting software and other technological shortcomings.

"VR hasn't escaped the early adopter, gamer-oriented segment," said Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder—himself an early adopter who chafed in 2016 at delays in shipping Facebook's then-groundbreaking Oculus Rift system. Gownder said many existing VR setups are still too hard to use; even simpler mobile systems like Samsung's Gear VR, he said, don't offer "a clear reason for the average non-gamer to get involved."

VR proponents are still dreaming big, although the challenges remain formidable. Shipments of VR headsets rose 8 percent in the third quarter compared to the previous year, to 1.9 million units, according to data research firm International Data Corp.—an uptick that followed four consecutive quarters of decline . Nearly a quarter of a million units of Facebook's Oculus Go and Xiaomi's Mi VR—the same stand-alone VR headset, sold under different names in different markets—shipped worldwide in the quarter, IDC said.

Those still aren't huge numbers for a technology that seemed to hold such promise in 2012 when early demonstrations of the Oculus Rift wowed audiences—so much that Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion two years later. Despite large sums ploughed into the field by Facebook, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft and Google, VR hasn't yet made much of a dent in the real world.

Some of the biggest consumer complaints involve expense, laggy or glitchy graphics and the fact that many systems still tether the headsets to gaming consoles or PCs. "Technology is still what's holding VR back," said eMarketer analyst Victoria Petrock. Upcoming stand-alone headsets like the Oculus Quest could solve some of those problems.

More alarming, though, VR still suffers from a lack of hit software. Many major game publishers have largely avoided the field so far, and venture funding for VR software development has nosedived this year.

Remember virtual reality? Its buzz has faded at CES 2019
People use Oculus VR headsets at the Panasonic booth at CES International, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

SuperData, a digital games and VR market research company owned by Nielsen Holdings, estimates that consumer VR software investments dropped by a stunning 59 percent in 2018, to $173 million from $420 million the year before.

Software makers are retrenching. IMAX said in late December it was shutting down its VR unit. Jaunt, a startup focused on cinematic VR and once backed by Disney, restructured this year. Its new focus? VR's cousin technology, "augmented reality," which paints consumer-simulated objects into the real world, a la the cartoony monsters of "Pokemon Go."

A few games have been modest hits. "Beat Saber" a VR game in which players move a lightsaber to music, sold over 100,000 copies in its first month and became the seventh highest-rated game on Steam, according to Forbes. But such titles are few and far between.

There's one other problem: VR isn't very social, Petrock said. There's no easy way to share the experience with others on social media or within the games themselves, making a VR experience less likely to go viral the way, say, "Fortnite" has. "You have your headset strapped on and you're in a virtual world but it is solitary," she said.

VR "is still is the next big thing, but anything good takes time and effort," said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen. "The industry as a whole did overhype it."

He compares the current VR industry to the TV industry when HDTV first came out. People bought new high-definition sets but were disappointed when there wasn't anything to watch in the new format. For VR, "the kind of breadth and depth of content isn't all quite there," he said.

Explore further

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User comments

Jan 10, 2019
Such nonsense. For some reason, I've seen a couple journalists bashing VR at CES 2019.. And it makes no sense at all. There's tons of excitement and VR is still growing at a healthy rate!
The claims made in this article are just not accurate.
Big hardware releases are coming soon, standalone VR headsets are the enabling factor many gaming-consumers are waiting for. Did this journalist not try the Oculus Quest?

Jan 10, 2019
The problem is current VR tech lets you see stuff, but doesn't let you do stuff. When they mate it up with devices that can tell where you're looking, and tactile controls that let you affect things in the VR and give tactile feedback, then it will leap out. Right now you can do as well with two monitors and a mouse.

Jan 10, 2019
And don't give me one click. Predict all the things I might think of to do and give me a different control for each of them.

VR is in its infancy and it's going to be expensive to develop.

Jan 10, 2019
Once they get adequate resolution, refresh rate, and field of view, VR should overtake traditional flat screen. I remember watching 'The Revenant' movie, the chase scene on horseback with the arrows whizzing around DiCaprio and the camera does a wide sweep and back, and thinking that VR should soon allow us to do the same thing at will in movies.

Jan 10, 2019
I still think that's half-VR, @Otto. You can see but you can't do.

Jan 10, 2019
When they mate it up with devices that can tell where you're looking, and tactile controls that let you affect things in the VR and give tactile feedback

I think it's the opposite. VR is (still) too clunky. Extra headset. Extra controllers. Complicated setup with sensors...

Most people are casual computer users. Donning headsets and gloves is far from casual (even for gamers).
We've seen it in other types of human-machine interfaces (pens, gesture recognition, touch screens, voice commands, ..)
And still: Nothing beats the mouse for pure convenience and ease-of-use.

Until VR is basically a "beam it directly into someone's eyes" type of deal I think it's going to continue having a hard time (much like 3D TV).

That said: the upcoming generation is finally in the range of resolution and field of view where I might give it a serious try.

Jan 10, 2019
Technically if you touch-type you can have a number of options; but this is, as you say, clunky. I was thinking more of laser scanning of the hands than gloves. And of photometry capable of scanning eye movements. Not sure about needing a headset especially with goggles.

Jan 10, 2019
I still think that's half-VR, @Otto. You can see but you can't do
I'm saying that movies will be filmed in 3D and you'll be able to pan around at will, perhaps even roam around a bit like video games.

Jan 12, 2019
It will happen when display resolution reaches the eye's resolution. Eye tracking and foveated rendering to make the high density areas dominate compute power where you're looking while the vast majority not in that cone of sensitivity are rendered at really low resolution.

We want to see the same level of detail as we see in the world's best reasonably priced displays. And then there is the field of view.... Then this rocket ship takes off.

Jan 12, 2019
Duplicate, heavy sigh.

Jan 13, 2019
Triplicate. Shit.

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