XR Predictions Need to Get Back to Reality

Pandemic poses a burden, not a boon, for extended reality

The early months of 2020 have largely been defined by the spread of coronavirus, which has triggered tech trends such as a huge rise in video calling and conferencing platforms as billions of people have been instructed to stay at home (see Will Covid-19 Spark a New Dawn for Mobile Working?). Following this shift, some proponents of extended reality (XR) have suggested that the technology could soar in popularity by offering people the opportunity to meet up, talk and work together in digital environments.

The temptation to advocate for this idea is obvious. After all, XR can provide a stronger sense of presence for users than sitting in front of a screen, and the technology is increasingly available to a wider audience, especially as consumer-level VR headsets in particular become more affordable. Some XR platforms also offer notable advantages to users, such as content sharing, which is an important part of remote collaboration for many businesses.

This is where XR can offer something truly different, and potentially far more valuable than video calling tools, as they allow users to share and view 3D content. This can range from 3D pictures and videos for consumer use, to designs and models of objects, which could be of huge value in the enterprise space. Some platforms specifically cater to this use, such as Nvidia Holodeck, CAD Explorer and PiXYZ, all of which put 3D design and modelling at the heart of the experience.

It’s also suggested that meeting and working in XR could provide a more engaging sense of presence for users. Benefits can also come from customizable digital environments, which could allow for scenarios where businesses can brand digital events or workplaces, for example. Users can also create avatars to represent them in most XR communication and collaboration tools, giving them a sense of character. This can add a sense of creativity and fun to interactions.

A wide range of platforms already cater to both consumer and enterprise users, and Facebook is currently trialling a beta version of its VR social network, Horizon. This platform aims to give users a high level of control throughout their environment, putting strong focus on user-generated content. Given the resources the company is already pouring into VR through Oculus, targeting a social platform as part of the ecosystem makes sense. I’m excited to see what Facebook can deliver.

XR does have the power to provide innovative new experiences for communicating and collaborating, and the platforms I’ve highlighted are just some examples of this. Given time, both software and hardware will improve, and this will only make XR offerings more attractive.

However, I’ve been worried by suggestions on blog posts and social networks that XR headset sales could be about to skyrocket thanks to the current health crisis. As my colleague Geoff Blaber recently discussed, many people seem to be underestimating the economic impact of the current health crisis, and the idea that people will be rushing to buy a VR headset when faced with job losses or pay cuts seems faintly ridiculous. Similarly, many businesses are struggling to cope with the current challenges; they will be focussing on stabilizing operations rather than considering adopting a brand-new technology. Although I love to see enthusiasm for XR, this must be grounded in reality.

Even excluding the current crisis, XR still has obstacles to overcome before it can be a legitimate basis for regular communication and collaboration. Levels of headset ownership haven’t yet reached those needed for large groups of friends or colleagues to all jump on an XR call together, and I expect it will be many years before this degree of adoption is achieved. Although “blended immersion”, where some people join this type of call on non-XR devices, could be an important mid-point on a journey toward more widespread adoption, in the short term it will likely result in a limited experience for users.

What’s more, the adoption of video calling tools in the current crisis may actually create a further barrier for XR to overcome as it aims to enter the mainstream. We have seen something of a land grab by Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms aiming to take advantage of the shift toward home working and digital socializing. If these tools become a new normal and a familiar part of everyday technology, then XR may struggle to surpass them for some time.

But these hurdles aren’t insurmountable, and we remain optimistic that XR has a bright future, thanks to its ability to deliver attractive new experiences in the consumer and enterprise spaces. We’ve previously forecast that headset shipments will grow from about 17 million units in 2019 to 60 million in 2023, and our user research points to strong demand for XR headsets. However, the current health emergency is likely to dampen this growth, rather than enhance it, as some have suggested.

The current window of opportunity presented by the coronavirus pandemic has provided a huge lift for traditional conferencing and communication platforms, but it has come too soon for XR tools aiming at this space. As the technology improves, I expect to see certain uses flourish in areas where XR has the greatest value. XR may also benefit from increased awareness in the long term, as people become more aware of the power of remote communication and collaboration. But right now, there are significant barriers to usage, and suggestions that the health crisis will translate to headset sales isn’t rational. XR holds potential, but physical reality will dictate its future.