“Color television was a hard sell… it was deemed impractical from the start. At times, color television was considered too expensive, technologically cumbersome, and challenging to stabilize and manage… As a result of this demanding complexity, the technology for color television existed for over twenty years primarily [as a novelty]… Consequently, the historical narrative of color television is full of false starts, failure, negotiation, and contention.”
Virtual reality isn’t the first time technology with immense potential to transform the media landscape has sparked skepticism. Replace “color television” in Murray’s quote with “virtual reality” and we see history is repeating itself. From price to ease of use, VR is plagued by the same challenges as the tech that came before it.
Color TV’s hurdles led Time magazine to call it “the most resounding industrial flop of 1956” (which sounds a lot like VR in 2016). Now it’s almost impossible to find a US household without one. VR is slowly inheriting the same narrative, and just as color TV prevailed, so too will VR, earning $8.9B in revenue by 2022.
But is the price worth it?
In the early 1950s, a color television set cost upwards of $10,000 (accounting for inflation). By the ‘60s the price had gone down, but still hovered between $2,000 and $4,000. This was a major reason why it wasn’t until 1972 that color TV stopped being a “novelty” and sales surpassed that of black and white television sets.
VR prices are coming down, but they are still not accessible to the average consumer. Low cost options are available, but they face a number of technological challenges that make them nearly impossible to have high-end or longer-term experiences. People simply don’t use them.
As recently as 2016, VR users needed to spend roughly $1,600 for a high-end virtual reality experience on a PC. Costs have certainly gone down since then, but we are still talking about several hundreds of dollars for a computer that can properly run VR in addition to the cost of the headsets themselves.
Removing the need for a PC or console has drastically reduced the price: VR fans can buy the untethered Oculus Quest for just $399. However, there are a number of other hurdles that make that price point not worth it for most people.
“You’ve almost got to have an engineer [to set it up]”
In 1956, General Electric’s President Ralph J. Cordiner blamed color TV’s shortcomings on ease of use and setup: “If you have a color set, you’ve almost got to have an engineer living in the house.” That’s a common sentiment with high-end VR. Booting up, updating and running VR content on a PC is not something most people can do.
Setting up a tethered headset is no small feat. I’m admittedly pretty shotty at it even though I use VR more often than the average person. Apple has created an empire by creating a seamless experience for every kind of tech user, and that’s what VR desperately needs. Oculus Quest is a great start. I threw that headset on and had everything synced up within 15 minutes.
But that’s just one headset, and while its horsepower is impressive, it’s still not at the caliber of a PC headset. I’ve also got a lot of experience with VR so this is easier for me. I show the headset to a lot of first-time users and just getting it on and in-focus can be difficult for them.
Where’s VR’s NBC?
There’s a lot of chatter about VR’s “killer app” but just one app won’t do the trick. After just a handful of shows broadcasting in color, NBC announced its primetime schedule for fall 1965 would be almost entirely in color. It was because of this ABC and CBS followed suit, before which people found it hard to justify purchasing a color TV just for a few programs.
NBC was the AAA publisher of color TV. VR is still waiting for its own NBC to put up a catalog of high-quality content that people really want. There are a few games that have been catalysts for VR’s growth, including Superhot and Beat Saber, but that’s not enough. The technology needs a company to take the leap so the other players can follow suit and make VR irresistible.
It’s about more than just color TV
It’s true that color TV and VR have their differences. For one, getting people into headsets is a lot harder than showcasing the benefits of color TV through a shop window. VR doesn’t have its own version of the black and white TV, but it does have a catalog of modern tech that it needed in order to become a reality.
VR needed the internet, computers and smartphones to come before modern-day VR could exist. VR’s destiny is not exactly the same as color TV’s, but the similarities are uncanny and abundant enough that we can draw correlations to make predictions.
While consumer-friendly prices are a big factor in driving general consumption, the real inflection point happens when the experiences they create make any alternative unthinkable. Just as we would never consider buying a black and white TV today, it’s not far-fetched for us to think immersive experiences will be widely in demand and VR will be necessary to enable them.
With headset prices steadily falling and entertainment companies showing a persistent interest in creating VR content, the final piece of the puzzle will come with experiences that will make turning back impossible. This is how VR will get into one in five households in the US by next year. What that will look like or when it will happen is hard to say, but judging by the adoption trends of color TVs, all evidence points to sooner than later.