One of the words of 2016 may well turn out to be ‘peak’. Debates over peak debt and peak stuff, for instance, argue for new trends emerging in the economy and society. Given the level of announcements over VR (and AR) and the media coverage, are we seeing new trends emerge, or are we at peak hype over VR?

Two thought experiments:

Imagine yourself in a presentation in 2006 given by a tech forecaster on new economic opportunities in the next decade. What would you think about a $70bn market in Europe in 2016 as an entrepreneurial opportunity?

Now go forward to 2014, to a dragon’s den type event. Two talented teams present business cases in very different niches. Unbeknown to each other, they argue that they will break even in 2016, with over 1m downloads jointly based on ‘the inevitable success of X’. What do you think X was/is?

The answer to the first is a $70bn market for commerce in Second Life and other virtual worlds. The second is X=Google Glass. Have I missed something?

As Paul Gascoigne observed: ‘I don’t make predictions and I never will.’

Both VR and AR have been around a long time. The term VR can be traced at least back to the 1930s. Immersive 3D experiences in films and at theme parks date back to the 50s. It is also notable that 3D TV has failed to thrive. I am actually a fan of 3D TV and have a growing collection of both films and documentaries. It’s interesting, to me at least, that in the US 4K is taking off in a way that 3D did not.

There is an interesting photo of Mark Zuckerberg arriving to talk at Barcelona about VR. Who is the only person not wearing a VR helmet?

In my last post, I pointed out that technology change often shows a hockey stick market growth, with a long time slow burn and then explosive growth. Many of the demonstrations of both VR and AR are very similar to those given 10 or 20 years ago. 20 years ago I was at a launch of a school’s IT project which included the use of VR helmets

The technology has matured significantly, is far more robust and much lower cost. Yet are we at the start of the growth phase or is this another false dawn?

I’m told that 3D sound in VR is still not fully realised, but technically many of the challenges that have held back widespread adoption have been eliminated or seriously diminished.

Looking back may be instructive. It was the spreadsheet that turned the PC from a toy to an office powerhouse. It was DTP and then the LISA/MAC GUI that made Apple the platform of choice for creatives. In the 90s, it was the browser that opened up the WWW for everyday usage. In the last decade I would argue that it was apps that did a similar job for the iPhone.

Is there one for VR and AR? As with wearables there is a strong tendency in the media to report broad categories such as ‘health’, ‘games’ or ‘education’.

What concerns me is that the demonstrations today seem to be treading the same ground as those I saw a decade ago. As I said earlier, the experience of the modern technologies is a long way from the clunkier reality of the earlier demonstrations, but is it enough to generate market traction?

For me, I see lots of niches, many of which are worthwhile and interesting, but I remain unconvinced about mainstream adoption.

A little personal history will illustrate. I trained in 1986 on ISDN, on the grounds that 1987 was the year video conferencing would take off. It was 1998 before I could get ISDN at home, only for it to be obsoleted within a few years. With a daughter in China, video calls are part of my regular routine. The quality is far worse than could be achieved back in the late 80s, but it’s free. Remember that SMS took off despite limited functionality and a poor interface.

If there is a budding entrepreneur out there who can identify the equivalent of Visicalc or Mosaic, good luck to them. My experience is it’ll be ‘obvious when we see it’, so here’s hoping.

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.