If you look deeply into recent VR announcements, past the high-level spec changes and aesthetic considerations, you’ll notice an important developing trend: Headset makers are actively trying to make VR easier for new users to experience — quickly.
Over the past year, many VR companies have pivoted either fully or partially to embrace the technology’s potential in public spaces. Notable software developers have shifted to making location-specific games where headsets get passed from person to person. Oculus has started to donate Rift and Go headsets to promote mass VR use in public museums and schools, while developing a screen-sharing feature so experienced Go users can guide new headset wearers. And HTC has been working similar on content-streaming features for its standalone Vive Focus.
Another big example came this morning with Acer’s announcement of OJO 500, a Windows Mixed Reality headset that superficially shares most features with an earlier model. But now OJO 500 is “designed to be pulled apart,” notably including a detachable headstrap. While this makes cleaning and storage easier, the broader reason for the change is to support “family or business scenarios where a single device may be shared among multiple users.”
Acer and other VR headset makers have realized that new VR users are getting bored waiting for their first experiences. In public spaces, people have been spending too much time waiting in lines before they can actually use devices, turning initial enthusiasm into disenchantment. In some cases, just getting the headset on and adjusted is the key holdup. OJO 500’s detachable headstrap means that the next person in line could be handed a second headstrap, and finish most of the fitting process before the current user ends her session.
One of the arguably unfortunate consequences of this “easier setup” process is that some hardware makers are going to move away from fully engrossing components to ones that are easier to get on and off. Acer’s already doing this with OJO 500. At first, this will mean over-ear and in-ear headphones give way to loose on-ear and near-ear speakers. But it’s also going to mean more flip-up screens and less tight seals with your face and eyes.
Solving the hardware issues is only a piece of the puzzle. For some of the PC-dependent headsets, the software setup process remains annoyingly long. Even with headsets and controllers that were already set up, I’ve seen public VR demo stations at Microsoft Stores where first-time users witness driver errors and hiccups in selecting Windows apps. There are no such problems on Sony’s PlayStation VR platform, but I have yet to see a PSVR demo station in any local store — the benefits of Sony’s straightforward setup experience only become apparent once you’ve purchased the hardware.
All of the major VR headset makers appear to understand that their devices have to become simpler to use or they risk alienating prospective customers. Whether one views their latest moves as obvious evolutionary steps or necessary responses to an existential threat depends on your perspective on VR as a whole. VR naysayers are certain that the technology is dying, while manufacturers and optimists are seeing slow but steady growth of an undeniably transformative technology.
I’m personally all for changes that make VR easier for more new users to enjoy, unless they compromise the comfort or immersion of experienced users. Given recent trends, my biggest concern is that future VR gear will start shipping with “ready for museum” earphones and detachable components by default, requiring users to make post-purchase customizations to optimize their immersion — possibly necessitating additional parts.
Ideally, VR hardware makers will realize that what’s good for five- or ten-minute sessions on public demo hardware isn’t ideal for products used exclusively and repeatedly by one person, then figure out a way to satisfy both demo users and owners. A solution that’s designed and shipped specifically for home use, but customizable for public use at an institution’s greater expense, strikes me as the right compromise going forward.