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Six years ago, virtual reality seemed to be the next big technological breakthrough for consumers.
With the demonstration of his impressive prototype Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD) in 2012, Palmer Luckey managed to immediately erase the bad image VR had amassed from 90s movies like The Lawnmower Man and woefully premature commercial curiosities like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. This led to the Kickstarter campaign for the first Oculus developer kit flying past its $250,000 funding target on its way to a final proceeds of $2.4 million. Two years later, Oculus accepted a $2 billion takeover offer from Facebook.
The build-up to the launch in 2016 of the first consumer version of the Oculus Rift (the CV1) has only further increased the consumer’s VR profile. Analysts’ forecasts were bullish, going so far as to say that the VR market would be worth $150 billion in just five years. The co-founders of Oculus were breathlessly profiled in glossy magazines, with Luckey landing on the cover of Time in August 2015. Google even partnered with Disney to give away its low-tech paper cardboard sleeves, enticing fans of Star Wars and other mega-properties with themed mobile experiences. Decades away from the hangover from failed VR arcades and gimmicky consumer trinkets, this time would be different.
Double Fine’s Tim Schafer put it best at DICE 2016. “We all wanted Snow Crash to happen, and then we pulled things on, and it was just Pterodactyl Terror, and we all had to throw up,” he told Ars, possibly (jokingly) misnaming Virtuality’s less-than-stellar VR arcade experiment Dactyl Nightmare. “I think a huge leap has been made” [this time].”
Six years later, VR has not yet reached the stratospheric heights promised by the cyberpunk fantasy. But the latest wave hasn’t been another high-profile failure either. Meta’s Quest 2 headset has significantly revived consumer interest in the industry with its easy-to-use experience and relatively low price (though it’s not as low as it once was), with its Oculus Store offering a handful of bona fide VR native hit games supports .
All of this largely explains how, given the ups and downs of iteration and experimentation that followed the consumer release of Rift, VR developers and viewers told Ars they’re still excited about virtual reality — and they’re excited to see where the technology goes next. And while initial enthusiasm about its global impact has dampened a bit since 2016, most in the space now say it doesn’t need to be a big impact to be a success.
Hype meets reality
When the Rift CV1 was released, evangelists proclaimed that VR would not only revolutionize games, but it would change the world. (Goldman Sachs said in 2016 that mass adoption of VR hardware alone would overwhelm the $99 billion TV market by 2025, and it wasn’t the only company to make such high claims.)
But there was never an instant revolution, as Road to VR executive editor Ben Lang told Ars. “The expectation in the emerging industry was that it was going to be this crazy start,” Lang said. “But as happens with very new technology, until you can go from pure hype — like ‘this is going to change everything’ — to really specific actionable cases, it never gets that instant, overnight.”
In 2016, it seemed like every major tech company was eager to cut their slice of the VR pie. Rift and HTC’s Vive were available for PC early that year, while Sony’s PSVR was set to release for PS4 in October. On the mobile side, Google improved its Cardboard product with its mobile-powered Daydream to counter Samsung’s Gear VR.