The peak of escapist media, virtual reality (VR) has been naturally seeing a spike in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the world observed during this pandemic, the global crisis had its winners and losers. The losers have been plentiful, like aviation and hospitality companies, while the winners were but a handful: up-and-coming video conferencing platform Zoom, video streaming platforms like Netflix and Starzplay, and social media networks like Tik Tok, among others. What you'll notice amongst all these brands is that they are technology firms operating in the virtual world, occupying our time during the lockdown with escapist entertainment and interpersonal communication.
Naturally, gaming too is seeing unprecedented demand, fitting expected trends. The peak of escapist media, virtual reality (VR), is also seeing a spike in demand, despite falling sales.
The demand is there, but supply is suffering
In recent years, the technology one can compare VR to is 3D tech, which everyone from cinema theatres to TV manufacturers tried to push as much as possible, marked mostly by the success of director James Cameron's monumental 3D hit, Avatar. In following years, however, 3D failed to pick up steam, and eventually became an afterthought for consumers, and a means for film studios to milk some extra cash from moviegoers by charging them pricier tickets.
Like 3D, VR tech intially struggled to find demand - and continues to do so, on the mainstream level, at least - due to many factors, primarily price and hardware limitations. After a mixed period of many years, COVID-19 seems like it will finally whet our appetite for virtual worlds.
According to research firm IDC, demand for the tech has actually increased since the onset of the outbreak, though final sales figures were impacted by disrupted supply chains.
"Much of the supply chain for AR and VR headsets is shared with smartphones and PCs and many of these products are facing supply constraints as factories are operating at much lower capacity resulting in component shortages," said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC's Mobile Device Trackers. "However, the spread of the virus is having the opposite effect on demand as an increasing number of consumers and employees stay indoors and look to AR and VR solutions for ways to collaborate with colleagues and entertain themselves and their families."
According to research firm SuperData, "Since falling sales are due to a lack of supply, not demand, shipments of many headsets are poised for a rebound as supply chains return to normal. Much like video games as a whole, VR is a medium consumers are turning to as they are faced with fewer out-of-home entertainment options. Devices ranging from the PlayStation VR to Oculus Quest sold out or commanded a premium price from resellers on Amazon and Ebay."
Polygon confirmed this too, reporting that VR headsets had mostly disappeared off shelves in the US. In the Middle East, we've not heard reports of a similar situation, given that the region as a whole has not taken to VR much.
With both IDC and SuperData forecasting renewed and growing interest in the tech as we begin to return to life post-COVID-19, we could finally see the much-hyped virtual reality mania we were promised.
VR and AR have no "killer app"Beyond COVID-19, however, what also limited VR adoption has been the lack of a "killer app," so to speak. Among the first iPhone's attractions was its novel App Store. The draw to PS4 has often been its lineup of stellar exclusive games. What's VR's killer app? Nothing comes to mind. As for AR, animated Snapchat filters are the closest thing that one thinks of, but that already comes with our current smartphones - there's no need to go out and buy a bulky VR headset for it.
For gamers, however, they've recently had a reason to go out and buy a VR headset: Half-Life, one of the industry's most-beloved franchises, finally released a new entry after more than a decade and a half. The new title, Half-Life Alyx, was a VR-only title which brought some significant strides in VR application in gaming, While sales were notable for a VR title, they were still limited by weak adoption rates of the tech. Reviews, however, were glowing, signifying a new step for VR in gaming, which could be an indicator of greater things to come. In fact, sales of Oculus VR headsets spiked in the lead-up to Half-Life: Alyx.
Medical use and an "opportunity for VR to shine"
Aside from entertainment, other sectors have been relying on the technology with lockdowns still in place. Real estate firms, furniture firms and even tradeshows have found use for the tech as they attempt to keep engaged with customers.
Unsurprisingly, the healthcare sector has also found a myriad of uses for the technology amid the pandemic.
"Thanks to virtual reality (VR), it is possible to “visit” places around the world without leaving home," CNBC reports. "Experts say these virtual excursions provide more than just entertainment; VR experiences, especially immersive ones, can help us feel calm and connected amid the COVID-19 pandemic."
That's only one of the recent medical uses of VR in the medical field. Health tech projects, remote surgeries and telemedicine consultations are all being powered by the technology.
"Everyone is talking about telemedicine as sort of the solution to overcoming the physical barriers between patients and their providers, and there's no doubt that's taken off in a big way ... but there still are very important limitations to that that VR can help overcome," Dr. Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai and cochair of the VR/AR Association Digital Health Committee, told MobiHealthNews.
"It is an opportunity for VR to shine right now – if we can figure out how best to do it."