Virtual Reality will make more headlines than sales in 2016

The technology is promising in many ways, but there are still real roadblocks to adoption by the general public

Man wearing Oculus Rift headset

A gamer using a prototype Oculus Rift in 2014. (Chesnot/Getty)

Oculus Rift, the San Francisco-based VR startup that Facebook bought in 2014 for $2 billion, is finally set to launch its consumer headset in the first half of the year. The stampede into a market expected to be worth $150 billion (U.S.) by 2020 is almost officially on.

If you’ve tried Oculus’s headset, you know it’s pretty amazing – and the company’s very real breakthroughs are fuelling the hype train. But the reality check on virtual reality is that it’s going to held back by a number of factors.

First, as I wrote back in August, is the movement problem. There aren’t any good ways to get around in virtual worlds beyond using video-game-like controllers or completely impractical treadmills. Even Oculus has been forced to delay its product because of issues with the associated joysticks.

This isn’t an issue that’s going to be solved any time soon, at least not till VR incorporates some form of thought-sensing or haptic bodysuits.

Video game applications might have a head start since gamers are already used to handling multi-buttoned controllers for movement. But here too, VR will be limited by rival manufacturers and their different standards.

Microsoft, which has a partnership with Oculus, may incorporate it into games that run on Windows or Xbox consoles, but that will compete against Sony and its PlayStation VR.

Microsoft and Sony are doubtlessly pouring big resources into developing VR games for their respective consoles since they will be great differentiators—but will the two systems be similar enough to attract all-important third-party developers?

Or will these developers steer clear of the technology the same way they stayed away from motion-controlling peripherals such as Kinect and Sony’s Move—because they’re too different and don’t yet have a sizeable audience?

The smart money is on that second option.

Virtual reality has great promise outside of video games, of course, but that’s where it’s facing its biggest limitation.

One potentially huge application is in the live streaming of concerts and sporting events. VR could put headset wearers front row centre, or even on-stage with their favourite bands. The mind reels at the possibilities.

But doing something like that in real-time, which it really has to be in the case of sports and many other live events, is going to require heavy-duty internet bandwidth. With few countries having the infrastructure for even 4K video, it’s an application that still years away.

VR is going to be big in 2016, but only in headlines. Its real promise won’t be felt for some time.