About a month ago, when a lot of people started working from home, I said I was surprised virtual reality hadn’t become a bigger part of our work lives, and lives in general. How the times have changed. Here in the house, my son is dodging bad guys in the living room on our new Oculus Quest, which along with most other VR headsets, are actually sold out these days. A combination of the need for entertainment at home and the release of a buzzy new game called Half-Life: Alyx that can only be played in VR.
I dig into this in Quality Assurance, where I take a second look at a big tech story. I spoke with Adi Robertson, a senior reporter with The Verge who follows virtual reality. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Adi Robertson: After Christmas, there weren’t really many Oculus Quests; everybody was waiting for them to come back into stock. The same was true for other headsets, like Index. Then, the coronavirus hit right as they were supposed to be making a new wave of them, so they’ve gotten smaller shipments. At the very moment when a bunch of people wanted to buy a VR headset, they had not recovered and had not started selling them. Now, they’re again in a situation where lots of people are trying to buy them, both because of the coronavirus and because Half-Life: Alyx came out. It’s been really tough.
Molly Wood: I bought one, which I never thought I would do. I’ve seen a lot of people online talking about Half-Life: Alyx and then just consuming other VR content. Do you have a sense that there is this uptick in people actually wanting to buy these?
Robertson: I think it’s really difficult to tell, but I do think that Half-Life: Alyx was a point where a lot of people who had not really thought that much about VR considered getting one. Anecdotally, there is a lot of demand that there wasn’t before.
Wood: If anecdotally there’s all this demand, finally, but people can’t get headsets, was this the moment for VR to capitalize and instead they’re going to miss the boat?
Robertson: I think this is weird in the same way that a lot of coronavirus recovery stories are weird, in that it’s possible that these headsets supplies recover and that, at some point, everybody can play [Half-Life: Alyx] and a bunch of people swarm on it and it gets a boost and what it lost at launch it gains in word of mouth, and everybody finally gets this thing and it’s great. There’s also a world where it loses this big opportunity it had for a bump, and it’s just not able to capitalize on this fantastic opportunity it has.
Wood: Remind [me] again, who are the big headset players? What are the devices that people are trying to buy right now and can’t?
Robertson: There are basically three categories of headset and a few different brands inside them. The one we’ve been largely talking about is PC-based VR headsets, which are the ones you can play Half-Life: Alyx on. Those are made by HTC and Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, and Valve, which made Half-Life: Alyx. They all have headsets at varying price points. Then, there’s these standalone Oculus Quest, which was very popular, relatively speaking, in 2019 and seemed like it had a pretty good chance of breaking through, even without everyone playing on it. You can connect it to a PC, but it’s really just meant to be a generalist headset. And then you have PlayStation VR, which consistently seems to sell pretty well and to have pretty good games that people like — despite not being as buzzy as it was at the beginning.
Wood: We seem to be at a moment when, for example, a lot of people would love to be using this for homeschooling. If this shutdown lasts a long time, or there are rolling shutdowns or there is a reluctance for people to go back to work and school, long term, do you think that this is something that companies could capitalize on, whether software companies or headset makers?
Robertson: I think there’s definitely a space to expand a lot of the places where VR was already being used in the workplace. It’s already a very useful tool for running simulations and for doing certain research and visualization. I think there’s a chance that that could expand. I’m still fairly ambivalent about its use as either a replacement for something like Zoom or as even a virtual teaching tool. It’s still pretty hard to get these headsets, they’re still pretty expensive. We’re now figuring out that there are a bunch of kids who don’t even have access to good internet and can’t find a decent laptop. I think that we should be really careful about promoting the idea of VR headsets, which are even more inaccessible and difficult to use as a solution for homeschooling.
Related links: More insight from Molly Wood
In case you’re wondering, most VR headsets are still sold out. As an example of how fast things are going, Gamespot put up a story on Tuesday morning saying the Oculus Quest was back in stock. By that afternoon, an update on the page said it was already sold out again. There’s also a piece about the promise and potential of VR in the workplace from just last week. This was the question we were asking about a month ago. Seems like that conversation is coming back around again.
Speaking of Facebook-owned Oculus, the company just announced Thursday that it’s moving its virtual reality conference called Oculus Connect to an all-virtual format. The event didn’t have a specific date, but last year it was held in late September.
I would imagine that Facebook will be hard at work on something it actually announced at that event last year — Facebook Horizon, a social network in VR that, according to early testers, is like the nicest, most Nintendo-looking rudimentary version of the Metaverse from “Ready Player One.” I bet my kid would be hanging out there if it were available now. Here comes the revolution, I guess.
After watching everyone rush to Zoom, then start to hate Zoom, then look for alternatives to Zoom, Verizon decided to buy itself a Zoom competitor. Sensing a potential long-term trend in our work habits, the telecom giant bought BlueJeans Network, and reportedly pretty cheap — less than $500 million. According to the Wall Street Journal, the two companies had actually been in talks since last year, but you have to admit, that’s a well-timed move.
The future of this podcast starts with you.
Every day, Molly Wood and the “Tech” team demystify the digital economy with stories that explore more than just “Big Tech.” We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.
As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.