Opinion

Virtual reality is still too isolating to be 'the next big thing' in tech

The most popular tech of the last decade has been social. Studies show that when we check email and social media, we actually get a hit of oxytocin. That's what makes it all so addictive, and why we keep coming back. Yet VR is the opposite: it excels at novelty, but falls short on human connection.

The most popular tech of the last decade has been social. VR is a lonely individual experience

VR excels at novelty, but falls short on human connection. (REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian)

Virtual reality was supposed to be the next big thing.

That was the message the tech industry peddled for years. But despite all of the hype, consumers just don't seem as excited as many would have hoped.

There are the obvious reasons: the gear is expensive, headsets are clunky and image quality is still nowhere near that of movies or console games. But the biggest obstacle to VR's mainstream adoption is not its tangible limitations, but rather, the fact that the experiences it affords are isolating and lonely.

No human connection

Consider this: the most popular tech of the last decade has been social. Studies show that when we check email and social media, we actually get a hit of oxytocin, the same "cuddle chemical" that is released when we embrace, or fall in love. That's what makes it all so addictive, and why we keep coming back. Yet VR is the opposite: it excels at novelty, but falls short on human connection. And that could be the biggest factor in VR's stalled growth.

Early in 2016, the research group SuperData estimated Playstation VR would sell 2.6 million units. A few months ago, they revised that figure to just 750,000. At the same time, less than a year after flooding its locations with Oculus Rift VR "pop-up" stations, electronics giant Best Buy is closing down almost half of its in-store demos. Workers from multiple Best Buy pop-ups told Business Insider that it was common for them to go days without giving a single demonstration. People just didn't seem to want to try out the headsets.

An quick explanation of virtual reality by game guide Lindsay McLean at new virtual reality arcade in Edmonton. 1:47

That's a huge problem, because casual shoppers can't get a sense of a VR experience just by walking by. They actually need the immersive experience, which requires physically putting on the headset.

But that's where the inherently isolating design of VR headsets becomes apparent. Once you put on the headset, you're separated from the world around you. And sure, that heightened level of escapism is one of VR's great attributes. But if you're by yourself in the middle of Best Buy, putting on a helmet that blinds you to your surroundings may just be a bit more vulnerable than most people want to feel when they're out at the mall.

Even at home, where one can fully appreciate VR's capacity for immersion while in the comfort and safety of your living room, it's still equally isolating — a far cry from family movie night or a games night with friends.

Social VR spaces

In a recent column in the LA Times, Dimitri Williams noted that, "If we look at the most popular games of recent years — 'World of Warcraft,' 'League of Legends,' 'Pokémon Go' — they are each a sparkly excuse for playing with and being around others… Without others, we grow bored, restless, frustrated and sad." 

Some companies are starting to develop social VR spaces, which are being touted as the "killer apps" that could, finally, bring virtual reality to the masses. But it's a belated move after years of massive investments that somehow overlooked the necessity of social engagement and community experiences.

We all want to connect, and the most successful devices, platforms and networks help us do that. VR might also, soon. But until it's more social, people will leave the headsets off, and opt for technology they can enjoy with those around them.   

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.

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