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Has COVID-19 boosted interest in VR? (Analysis)

As COVID-19 forces people to self-isolate, people are interested in VR.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is an old English expression traditionally sourced from a Chinese curse. While the phrase may convey positivity, the sentence contains two sides. People much prefer living in ‘uninteresting times’ when the status quo was tranquil and predictable. When times get ‘interesting,’ trouble rears its head. Safe to say that the virtual reality (VR) industry is going through some exciting times as well. 

Anecdotally, Virtual Perceptions has seen a spike in interest. More people are searching online with terms like ‘Is VR worth it?’, where the site comes up. The report has received a significant uptick in clicks, indicating a rise in interest. The same goes for articles about games for kids, and free Oculus Quest experiences available now. The interest coincides with the situation, indicating that people are interested in VR more than ever. The ‘interesting times’ are profitable for companies working in immersive as well. 

Despite its common usage as a ‘Chinese curse,’ there is no evidence that the phrase links to any Chinese texts. It’s a false link. The same parallel can be drawn to the current pandemic when some call it the ‘Chinese virus’; COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate by nationality. Still, COVID-19 has massively impacted the supply and demand of VR. This article will explore and analyse why.

COVID-19 affecting the supply of VR

Let’s start with the supply side of VR. COVID-19 has drastically impacted the supply chain of Oculus, who are attempting to manufacture VR headsets as fast as possible. Buckled by the pandemic, Facebook is working hard under drastically different conditions. 

‘Like other companies, we’re experiencing some impact to our hardware production due to COVID-19,’ a Facebook spokesperson told Polygon. ‘We’re taking precautions to ensure the safety of our employees, manufacturing partners and customers, and are monitoring the situation closely. We are working to restore availability as soon as we can.’

The company has been successful. Over the last week, new stock of Oculus Quests kept entering the market, ready to be bought by people who want to jump into a new reality, even though the headsets keep getting sold out.

Scalpers are one reason. Buying items in bulk, they sell the headsets on Amazon for a mark-up, reaping profit from the lack of supply. The people are the scum of the earth, but they indicate a clear economic principle; that when demand outstrips supply, prices rise.

Oculus Quest, a standalone VR headset. Credit: Oculus.

Meeting the higher demand for VR headsets 

The rise in demand for VR makes sense. Locked inside with no way to travel or see friends, families are exploring new ways to dip into entertainment. Imagine being cramped in a small space, several feet in length and width, restricted and unable to venture far. Anyone would want a headset which branks walls and let them venture further. 

Video games are well-suited for the pandemic. Interactive experiences help people zone into another world in a fun and engaging way, communicating with friends via online features. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where users can run their islands and visit others, released at a perfect time for those who can’t travel. Even games like Call of Duty: Warzone, where people fight in a battle royale, nurtures relationships via microphone chats. 

And in VR? AltspaceVR is a clear winner. Holding conferences and hosting groups, the platform became a meeting place for the immersive community. While Zoom calls may drain workers, and the endless phone calls with friends may become grating, meeting people in VR still has its pull. The demand has hit supply. 

Other reasons for the rise in sales 

Despite the boosted interest in VR, there are other factors in play. Take Half-Life: Alyx. Over a decade after the last Half-Life game, the next game in the franchise catapulted interest in VR headsets. As users scramble for headsets shortages followed the game’s wake, impacting all VR headset manufacturers. 

Then there is the lack of hard numbers. Facebook has been notably tight-lipped on the number of Oculus Quest units that have been sold. The same goes for HTC, Pico, and other VR headset manufacturers. With the restricted numbers, some speculate that the shortages are artificial; making slightly less than needed to encourage artificial demand, making the item more attractive. No evidence for this exists. 

Still, the Oculus Quest has been sold out multiple times over the last few months, long before the COVID-19 crisis. Yet while some factors led to its disappearance, new ones continue to ensure demand outstrips supply. 

More than COVID-19, Half-Life: Alyx also boosted interest in VR. Photo credit: Valve
More than COVID-19, Half-Life: Alyx also boosted interest in VR. Photo credit: Valve.

The boosted interest in VR 

One consequence of self-isolating is time. With the lack of commute, people have more time in the mornings and evenings to sort life out. In response, other parts of life may expand, such as childcare. But in that space, other new hobbies are filling the gap. 

For some, it may mean knitting. Other are playing the new Final Fantasy VII Remake. For communities like immersive, it may mean wearing a headset and finding new communities. If supply chains are fixed, VR will surge.