Metaverse mastermind explains why VR is so difficult
Why is VR taking so long to arrive in our everyday lives? Metaverse evangelist Matthew Ball explores the contributing factors and shares his insights.
Fascinating 3D and AR technology, NeRFs, and immersive virtual reality headsets like those from Meta have all emerged in 2023, but the oft-invoked Metaverse is still a long way off. Matthew Ball is one of the masterminds behind the Metaverse. In an essay, he looks at the state of affairs and analyzes why the vision of the future has not yet materialized.
Great expectations become disappointments
As the author of the best-selling book "The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything," Ball published a long piece on his website called "Why VR/AR Gets Farther Away as It Comes Into Focus."
In it, he gives numerous examples from the history of XR to describe why the Metaverse seems so distant when the technologies have already made such great strides.
As we observe the state of XR in 2023, it’s fair to say the technology has proved harder than many of the best-informed and most financially endowed companies expected.
Ball cites Silicon Valley giant Google, among others, as a false prophet. Google expected annual sales of its AR headset, Google Glass, to climb to tens of millions of dollars by 2015. The search giant suggested that nearly 80 percent of people who wear glasses every day would want to wear Google Glass.
Google Glass has been "an infamous flop," with sales amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, Ball writes. The company's current AR products no longer use the Glass brand.
In 2016, Epic Games CEO and founder Tim Sweeney predicted that by 2023, wireless VR headsets would have the power of PC VR headsets in the form factor of sunglasses. As we know, nothing came of that.
Major technological advances
In addition, the venture capitalist describes the achievements of Metaverse technologies.
Over the past 13 or so years, there has been material technical progress. And we do see growing deployment.
Matthew Ball, best-selling author
XR is being used selectively in construction and industrial design, film production, assembly lines, and factory floors, he said. Some schools are using VR in the classroom. Ball pointed out the benefits of a virtual classroom, mentioning virtual Bunsen burners and virtual frogs for dissection, all overseen by a teacher avatar.
Virtual reality is also becoming popular for workplace safety training, especially in high-risk environments like oil rigs, according to Ball. Johns Hopkins Hospital has been using XR devices for more than a year for surgeries such as removing cancerous spinal tumors.
Why VR is so difficult
VR continues to have a tough time reaching the mass market. True, Meta Quest 2 has sold millions of copies. But game consoles like the Xbox or PlayStation still outpace VR headsets at the retail counter.
Ball suspects that consumer usage time also differs between systems. According to Ball, as of March 2022, the average PlayStation 5 owner uses the device 50 hours a month, or about two hours a day.
He is unable to find robust figures on VR headset usage. And while Xbox and PlayStation annual sales continue to grow in their third year, Meta Quest 2 sales are already declining in the second year after release.
Are expectations for VR too high?
Compared to our everyday devices, the processing power of a video game console was also so great that Japan even imposed export restrictions on its own beloved giant, Sony, and its signature PlayStation 2 console in 2000. The government feared that the PS2 could be used for terrorist purposes around the world, such as to process missile guidance systems.
In 2010, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory built the world's 33rd-largest supercomputer with 1,760 Sony PlayStation 3s. According to Ball, the project manager estimated that the "Condor Cluster" cost five to 10 percent of comparable systems and used 10 percent of the energy. The supercomputer was used for radar enhancement, pattern recognition, satellite image processing, and artificial intelligence research, according to Ball.
In his essay, Ball writes that VR headsets can't deliver that kind of computing power. In contrast to game consoles, VR headsets should already work without power cables, have their own display on board - game consoles are simply plugged into the TV - and be equipped with WiFi and mobile network connectivity, among other things. VR headsets should also be much lighter to minimize the load on the user's head.
For Ball, this means that VR headsets have to master a much more difficult task compared to game consoles while overcoming greater technological limitations. An impossibility, concludes the American.
Metaverse in the distant future?
The essayist, therefore, sees major hurdles to the imminent breakthrough of the Metaverse. After all, there is a whole range of electronic devices to which we are already accustomed and that clamor for our attention. A clunky, expensive VR headset would have a hard time beating those lock-in effects.
To drive adoption, VR games need to be better than the alternatives, such as TV, reading, board games, Dungeons & Dragons, video games, and whatever else.
Ball goes on to write, "the average VR user can only play with a subsection of their friends—a significant drawback given the nature of VR's applications."
He ends his essay on a somewhat optimistic note for the Metaverse, noting that many of the AR applications it may need to succeed are already in use on our smartphones. Ball says the progress must continue, right now for smartphone applications, and in the future, for even more powerful headsets.