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Home / Features / I thought VR could be revolutionary. Now, I’m not so convinced

I thought VR could be revolutionary. Now, I’m not so convinced

VR doesn't need better tech. It needs better ideas.

Meta Quest 3

It’s been three years since Meta gave us the Quest 2. Now, the next evolutionary leap for VR arrives in the Meta Quest 3. It offers the best virtual experience ever…or words to that effect. It aims to be an all-in-one games console, laptop and community building tool. And the headset mostly achieves those lofty aims. 

Images are crisper than ever. A greatly improved passthrough feature brings with it an array of mixed reality apps and experiences. It’s harder, better, faster, stronger. I think it’s the best commercial VR headset on the market, and a strong contender for gadget of the year.

So, why am I not more excited about it? 

I’ve spent the past week with the Meta Quest 3. I’ve traversed alien landscapes, created works of art and fought evil deities from the comfort of my swivel chair. This is the stuff of science fiction. It’s Tron made real. Ready Player One? You bet I am.

But that awe is all too fleeting. While undoubtedly impressive, my enthusiasm for the Meta Quest 3 can be summed up by a simple ‘meh’. To me, virtual reality is closer to interactive theatre than something I can immerse myself in. I’m being told I’m part of the performance, but really, I’m just a member of the audience looking on. Far too many games showcase what the tech can do, but have little substance. It’s a choreographed experience for my viewing pleasure, overriding any other sense of realism I see or hear. VR is a greatest hits, not a seminal album.

There’s only really a few big players in the VR game. That’ll be Meta, Sony and, soon, Apple. But this isn’t a Sony vs Microsoft vs Nintendo-style rivalry. A good old fashioned console war has gossip, industry leaks, and avid fan bases cheering as their console of choice shifts the most sales units. Rooting for a megacorp is strange, but the enthusiasm is real. This VR arms race however has all the excitement of a low stakes rock, paper, scissors match. 

An obvious cause of this is down to a lack of interest in VR itself. This is utopian tech we’ve seen immortalised in pop culture, but in reality hasn’t quite been quite as impactful. VR remains a niche, despite Meta’s best efforts to introduce it to the common workplace. Consumers don’t like being told what to do, especially if that advice comes from unrelatable billionaires. 

The technology has evolved somewhat since then, of course. But is VR being held back by companies with too few ideas? I think so.

It seems like the major players in VR aren’t really aiming to provide a game-changing experience. Rather, they’re competing for market share without original innovation or even enjoyment in mind. Ideas aren’t being created, they’re being recycled.

This has inevitably lead to a lack of distinction between Meta, Sony or even Apple when it comes to VR. Meta’s ‘all-in-one’ headsets offer play and productivity, but this scattergun approach fails to find a singular audience. The PS VR2 has PlayStation exclusives, but beyond that, many of the games and apps offered already exist on cheaper hardware. It’s hard to say how the Vision Pro will stand out from the crowd. It has the Apple name behind it, but on first impressions, looks little more than a digital corkboard. Can it offer something truly revolutionary for the $3499/£3499 asking price? I’m not so sure it can. 

We should be in a golden age for VR tech, given how it’s not really new tech at all. A form of primitive VR has existed since 1838. Back then, it was all smoke and, more literally, mirrors. It evolved through 3D prisms and Blade Runner-esque 80s headsets. Now, we have the technology, just not a yearning desire to use it.

But if VR is going to gain a significant foothold, it must do so quickly. We’re in desperate need of new virtual spaces as the internet becomes a more joyless place by the day. ‘Blue ticks’ is now a (valid) term of ridicule, not a marker of authentication. Dangerous corners of the internet that were once niche have become mainstream. In that, there’s an opportunity to build new platforms.

‘But what about the metaverse?’ some might cry. The metaverse has potential. No, seriously, it does, but right now it sits as a sparsely populated ghost town with little to do and even less to see.

But VR has a chance. Upending centuries old ways of work, play and interaction can’t be reimagined overnight. It definitely can’t be achieved solely through a $500 headset, or even a $3499 one. It takes time and fresh ideas. Perhaps most importantly, VR needs a reason to exist. Until then, it’s better being science fiction.

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About

A writer of seven years and serial FIFA 23 loser, Jack is also Features Editor at Stuff. Jack has written extensively about the world of tech, business, science and online culture. He also covers gaming, but is much better at writing about it than actually playing. Jack keeps the site rolling with extensive features and analysis.

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