If you watch CNN, you’ve likely witnessed the commercials for its CNN Go streaming app, which introduce the “new” (as of a couple years ago) virtual reality division. The ad shows reactions from people who’ve never tried VR before as they slip on a smartphone-based headset and react to the life-altering moment of experiencing VR for the first time.
The commercial is only a couple years old but, in the accelerated timeline of technology trends, it looks like something out of a 1980s Spielberg flick. It promises a naive and slightly disturbing future, like a World’s Fair exhibit gone wrong.
In truth, consumers are done with VR. Sales numbers, as tracked by Amazon sales rank data at Thinknum, make that crystal clear.
Amazon releases its numbers via API several times a day, to help track how products are selling across its multitudes of product categories. Those sale ranks figures make it clear all the major VR headsets in a tailspin, with no signs they’ll pull out of it.
Sony has pushed virtual reality with its PlayStation VR headset. At first, Sony saw decent sales, and its version bundled with Skryim has been most successful in moving PlayStation VR. In February 2018, that bundle saw a favorable rank of 29 among all video game products. Today, it sits at spot 100. That’s not a total disaster — rank 100 among all video game products isn’t so bad — but it certainly doesn’t indicate the headset is flying off shelves. Gamers are modestly interested, at best.
Taiwan-based HTC launched the Vive headsetHTC Vive review in April 2016. At the time, tech experts declared that high-end PC VR had arrived. The $799 HTC Vive, built for relatively high-end PCs, had the entertainment and gaming world scrambling to develop content for the new system, and sales for the system quickly climbed to an impressive top-50 spot despite the higher price tag. Today, though, its sales rank has plummeted.
Korean electronics giant Samsung wasn’t about to be left out of the VR fun. The company took a more mass-consumer approach, launching the smartphone-based Gear VR in 2014. Its most popular unit was a top-10 seller in September of 2016. Today, that device is at the more mediocre 83 spot. Other units from Samsung have straight-up failed to rank in Amazon’s best-seller charts.
In an attempt to get ahead of finicky consumers, Oculus released the all-in-one Oculus Go in October 2017. It originally sold quite well on Amazon, scoring a 7-spot in May 2018. But, as you can see above, it’s failed to maintain sales momentum, and has fallen off the top-100 product lists completely.
When VR first appeared and I was lucky enough to try early iterations of Project Morpheus, Oculus, and the like, my reaction was much like those of the newbies in the CNN commercial. “This is the future!” I proclaimed to anyone who would listen.
When the PlayStation VR came out, I scrambled to get one into my house. I ate up its games, burning through VR Worlds, goofing off in PSVR Playroom, and encouraging friends and family to give it a spin. They all had the same CNN-esque reaction. “Wow!”
But then, 30 minutes later, they wanted the thing off their heads for a return to reality. Not a single one of my friends or family members went on to buy a VR unit of their own. In fact, not one of them has asked to give the PSVR another try when they come over.
I dig VR. VR can bring a paradigm shift. The first time you strap into a VR experience, you’re taken somewhere else. It’s really cool. It’s a lot like seeing a 3D movie for the first time.
But then what?
Today’s VR headsets don’t answer that question. After the initial shock wears off they offer too little content, are too confusing to use, and leave too many users dealing with motion sickness or other VR-related ailments. Even hardcore VR enthusiasts rarely use a headset for more than an hour at a time.
There’s still many questions for Oculus, HTC, and Samsung to answer, and you shouldn’t expect to see VR sales return to their initial strength unless these companies can build new headsets that are far better than their predecessors — and sell them at a reasonable price.