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Can Oculus Rift eclipse smartphones? Epic Games' founder thinks so

Aside from the occasional Hilarious April Fool’s Prank®, it seems Oculus VR is all anyone is talking about these days. And there’s a lot to talk about; whether it’s indictments or defenses of the recent Facebook acquisition, high-ranking Valve employees migrating, Palmer Luckey receiving death threats--or, now, Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney saying some outlandish things about the potential of virtual reality. Specifically, Sweeney said in a recent Polygon interview that he thinks VR is technology that “will completely change the world,” and “it's going to be a bigger phenomenon than smartphones.” These statements encapsulate the hype--and, perhaps, hyperbole--that’s surrounding Oculus and VR in general.

So, is Sweeney pulling another April Fool’s joke on us? No, he totally means it. But is he right? His illustrious title of Guy Who Made the Unreal Engine certainly lends credibility to his momentous prediction, but it’s still quite a claim for a device which, as of this very moment, has virtually zero mainstream appeal. Look at it like this: It took a few years, but smartphones are positively ubiquitous now. Let’s single out the iPhone, which Sweeney directly compares to the Oculus Rift in the interview. To date, the iPhone has sold over 400 million units. Put another way, that’s more than one iPhone for every person living in the United States. And stepping back a bit, the iPhone only constitutes 42% of the current smartphone market. So, there’s roughly one smartphone for every eight people on the planet.

Achieving that kind of worldwide dominance took time--it’s been seven years since the first iPhone’s release kicked off this whole smartphone thing in earnest, and it was slow-going in the beginning thanks to limited supply and prohibitive pricing. That makes it an apt comparison for the Rift, which will likely have a high price and limited appeal out of the gate. But a smartphone is an easy sell: it’s a logical extension of a product people were already familiar with, and it marries two popular pastimes--surfing the Internet and talking on the phone. VR, in its current form, is largely being used for games and game-like experiences, making it far less interesting to non-enthusiasts. There’s also the psychological barrier of strapping a massive black brick to your head, which is probably enough to turn off some prospective users.

Sweeney acknowledges the product’s limited appeal in the interview, saying that “it has some real flaws that prevents it from being a pervasive device for everyone,” as the iPhone did when it first launched. But he goes on: “There might be an audience for 10 million users of the current tech, but as it improves with each generation, the audience is going to keep growing.” Sweeney’s clearly not intending that number as hard data, but it’s a peculiar figure nonetheless. The iPhone took over a year and a second hardware iteration to break 6 million units. And that was a product with instant mainstream appeal.

I have no doubt that Oculus Rift could become huge. It’s already spawning derivatives in the marketplace with Sony’s Project Morpheus, which was a factor that contributed heavily to smartphone proliferation. And, while the Rift is used almost exclusively for games now, that doesn’t mean it won’t have plenty of other applications in the near future. On top of that, people are at least becoming more familiar with the concept of “wearables,” what with all the smart watches and Google Glasses going around. It’s just hard to imagine it catching like wildfire in the same way as the iPhone.

Whether or not the Oculus Rift or VR in general catches on remains to be seen. And, no matter what I think, Tim Sweeney is right to be optimistic about its future. In fact, as an innovator and influential industry figure (and someone with a direct stake in the Rift), Sweeney’s practically obligated to talk up VR's potential. But looking at comments like his with some larger perspective makes it hard to take them literally. And the hyperbole may also prevent the Oculus from being taken seriously.

7 comments

  • bigsouth6200 - April 2, 2014 2 p.m.

    In a way I agree with his statement of Oculis taking over phones. Not in the sense of making calls to people (right away) but in the way they're used every day. I see a simple plan of something like this. Generation 1 VR - GAMING generation 2 VR & AR -GAMING AND CUMPUTING OS SKILLS generation 3 Two types of headware. GAMING & COMPUTING. Gaming still large and submersive glasses. Computing I think will go in a new direction of some kind of wearable (in public/work) glasses that use more AR than VR. Imagine if as long as you own the product such as I phone they could make a driver for the Oculus and you could slave your iPhone to your Oculus glasses! Or if you could switch drivers for your glasses so while you're walking to work you have a AR version of your I phones OS and when you get to work you could switch over to whatever OS you use there. At work you could see in your glasses a spreadsheet and speak commands to do whatever is necessary. I just think there are so many endless possibilities of what or how Oculus turns out that I wouldn't be surprised if it does take over smart phones.
  • Balaska - April 2, 2014 8:43 a.m.

    Not really guys. Mobiles are popular because they are phones first, they fit in your pocket (mostly) and you can take them anywhere. VR will NEVER be more than niche. Suck it up and live with that fact.
  • bellium - April 2, 2014 10:10 a.m.

    We could be looking at a future where the main way of communication between people isn't necessarily something that you carry in your pocket. Could be something wearable (near future), or even implanted (someday).
  • Balaska - April 2, 2014 1:33 p.m.

    Wearable tech is still mobile and google seem to have the lead on wearable AR. VR is tethered to a powerful PC. I agree with you on your points, but VR is something entirely different.
  • bigsouth6200 - April 2, 2014 2:05 p.m.

    Let's just hope the wearable doesn't continue to be the watches! They're to cliche James Bond that I can't stand them!
  • bellium - April 2, 2014 5:51 a.m.

    We are looking at an interesting sci-fiye near future when we talk about VR tech getting mainstream. Imagine other popular research topics like precise hand tracking for computer input and a VR/AR mixed kind of augmentation device turning into real end-user products in 10~15 years. We would be looking at a way to immerse ourselves into a fiction world while actually doing real stuff in real life like manipulating objects and talking to people. Not only that, we would be interacting with the fiction world in a realistic way using hand tracking input. The immersion of the VR/AR Goggles would be so great that in a few years, we wouldn't be able to live without using it in our daily lives (much like smart devices nowadays isn't it?) It's nice to know that there are high chances of being alive to see all that happen.
  • SnakeinmyBoot - April 2, 2014 5:43 a.m.

    Eh, I don't think this will take off as fast as he thinks it will. A better comparison than smartphones is PCs and the internet. Those have been around for 25-30 years in their current form before becoming popular 15 years ago. People slowly got more accustomed to them through their jobs, schools and later public kiosks, maybe even libraries if they bothered. It wasn't until the prices dropped in the late 90s, the internet got better and user interfaces were made simple enough one wouldn't need to know DOS commands to use a PC that the general population would buy them. Modern VR already has really good tech, but might still need work even after sales start. The proposed $300 price of the Rift doesn't seem unreasonable and will go down in time. But, skeptics and unaware consumers will need exposure to it before they are willing to use VR, let alone spend money on it. After all that time trying to defeat the motion sickness problem, there still will be non-believers and the rare few who still get sick. If it does eventually become mainstream, it will take years if not more than a decade before it's seen as more than "that expensive funny video game thingy." Another problem is what some of these visionaries think VR will become. Calling these portable is folly. It's a huge pair of costly goggles strapped to your face. Portability is kinda low there. I wouldn't want to lug one around all day, finally leave it home, then on the day some friends randomly say "let's go to that new VR arcade arena thing" and I have to use a loaner(with all the lovely sweat, skin flakes and pathogens). And going to a movie theater to watch a VR film is kinda dumb. You got the whole cinema on your head. If you want the social experience of going to the movies, invite (via meatspace or via facebook, why not use facebook properly on the things) some friends with their own Rifts to watch it with you or just go to the cinema. It has to be advertised and used properly. A place where you can pay to run around on one of those sphere treadmills or similar equipment while in a game might be successful since few people want to buy one of those and have it take up most of their apartment. Check back with me in 20 years when they make augmented reality glasses that turn into a 4K VR Headset. Like an Iron Man/ Metroid style Heads up Display/View screen. I'll throw money at it then.

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