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VR doesn’t need an ‘iPhone moment’; it needs a new language for progress

Oculus Quest

While VR has progressed, though at a slower pace than many expected. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg notes that it is taking longer than expected. And yes, the Oculus Quest is showing signs as a game-changer in the space, with higher sales and user retention. The facts, figures, and quotes have been shared and interpreted widely across the ‘net for the last few years. 

But this is not a discussion on the rate of change itself; that has been explored elsewhere. The purpose is to pin down how we describe progress itself, and the very language we use. At best, it has been stilted; at worst, misleading. 

We use previous technology trends to compare VR. ‘VR needs its iPhone moment,’ some would say. Other companies want to provide the ‘Netflix of VR’ with its software. While it is easy to do, and a great way to convey our thoughts, it is mostly untrue and betrays the truth of its development. 

VR is wholly unique, part of its own game with its own new rules. By the end, I will propose that the development of VR should be based around ‘friction’, or the ease of access to VR content. 

Using the past as context

Firstly, why do we refer to previous tech trends when talking about VR? Because it is a quick and efficient way of communicating thoughts. 

A general audience would know the story of the iPhone and how it ruptured the mobile phone market. With a smart strategy and a truly innovative design, it enraptured the world, and it soured as one of the biggest-selling products of all time. That language of progress – of having an ‘iPhone moment’ – has captured our language since. 

At times, it has been useful. VR is indeed at its early stages, where R&D is slowly catching up to user expectations. The most significant step of this was the release of the Oculus Quest, a standalone headset with no external PC required. 

But in truth, saying we are waiting for an ‘iPhone moment’ is misleading. For one, we are not waiting for a brand new contender to change the industry. Current players may do this. And we are not waiting for a lower price point; iPhones in their early days were incredibly expensive. And we may be waiting for a piece of tech that makes VR comfortable, but it will not be as flashy as the iPhone’s touch screen. The more we unpack the phrase, the more issues there are. 

Proposing a different type of language for progress 

On its own, VR will progress in a very different way. The barriers that face VR is different from mobile phones, revolving around accessibility and control inputs. So we should describe VR progress in a different way. 

I suggest we should use the term ‘friction’ from now onwards. 

Take the timeline of VR development over the last few years. The biggest jumps in adoption connect to the ease in which users access VR content. When the Oculus Rift launched in 2016, a small but lively group adopted the headset as it was much easier to play VR games. The headset came with an online store, quality games, and at lower prices – all vital to lower the friction of entry. The same goes for the PlayStation VR, which only required users to have a PlayStation 4 in their living rooms. The headset has sold millions of headsets globally. 

Then came the Oculus Quest. With the subsequent increase in sales and adoption, there is no doubt that the Oculus Quest has upended the market. The main reason is simple – it is a standalone VR headset. No PC required, or any complicated set-up. And that ease lifted the barriers of entry much more. 

All this tied into the idea of friction for the user. The less there is, the more likely someone will use VR. And the best steps for its development will likely lower it further, via lower price points, and better hardware. Neural connectivity, where our thoughts influence devices, will be the start of an entirely frictionless experience for Oculus.  

Marking progress with friction

VR development shows that access is vital for adoption. The implementation of hand tracking in 2020 makes it easier for users to interact with specific software titles. Removing external sensors means people can use VR more quickly than in previous years. And when AR glasses comes along, using our thoughts as inputs, then the future is truly here. 

None of this suggests that the iPhone is similar to VR. It has never been. Comparing the two has been useful for some when talking about adoption, but it has always been unsatisfactory. A new language is needed, one which helps describe VR’s progress as its industry. ‘Friction’ is the first step in the right direction.