Why the iPhone Moment of VR is Far Away
But it's coming
VR has been around for 60 years and it still hasn't taken over the world. The hype cycles of the 90s and the 2010s suggested it was imminent. Many of us believed that the launch of the Oculus DK1 (2012) would trigger a snowball effect of rapid progress leading to a mass-market platform. That hasn't happened, but it will.
I thought that I didn't understand the hardware side to make a good prediction. But even Michael Abrash was off. In 2016, he predicted that by 2021 we would have headsets with a resolution of 4k x 4k per eye (~40 pixels per degree); in 2018 he updated that prediction to a 2022 deadline. The Quest Pro has a 2k x 2k display (22 PPD). The $2000 Varjo Aero and the still unreleased $1000 Bigscreen Beyond have a close to 3k x 3k display (~30 PPD) — but they run on powerful PC GPUs.
So we all got it wrong. We underestimated the difficulty in creating new hardware necessary for a small and powerful headset. We need new displays and lenses. Also, a better form factor to improve comfort and reduce friction. Standalone devices moved the goalposts. Add batteries, mobile GPU improvements, and thermals to the list. The expectations of what these headsets should do increased too: inside-out tracking, hand tracking, face tracking and mixed reality. That's a lot for a mobile chipset. If we still can't run 4k displays on most PC-tethered headsets, how far are we from doing so on standalone?
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VR hardware isn't stuck though, it improves with each generation. The Quest 1 made standalone possible and had better displays than the original Rift. The Quest 2 — released a year later — provided a 50% higher resolution, 33% more GPU power, and 46% more CPU power. The Quest 3 launches this year, moving to pancake lenses that make the device slimmer. Its new chipset, the XR Gen 2, will provide 2.5x higher performance. The Quest Pro and HTC XR Elite focus on better clarity and new sensors for mixed reality and face tracking.
What's coming next? There aren't any expected major improvements in lenses and batteries. Different teams are experimenting with different ideas like Holographic optics and solid-state batteries, but there's no timeframe. This usually means at least 10 years — it's too hard to predict something about tech more than 10 years out — and it may never come to fruition.
Moore's law may be ending, but CPUs and GPUs increase their power by double-digit percentages each year while improving efficiency. Apple is leading the way with Apple Silicon and Qualcomm is playing catch-up with Nuvia. We should see a big jump in both performance and efficiency these next 3-4 years.
The most exciting upcoming advancement is in displays. Mass-production of micro-OLED (μOLED) starts in 1-2 years and could be available for the Quest Pro 2or Quest 4. These displays have a much higher efficiency while offering higher resolutions (and PPI), lower response time, better colours, higher contrast, and are significantly smaller.
microLEDs are also coming and they improve on all these parameters even further. They will be important for AR as their size and weight are ideal for small glasses and their brightness is good to use outside. But low-cost mass production is still far away. We shouldn't count on microLED headsets until at least ~2030.
The field of view in VR headsets has varied between 90 and 110. The higher the FoV, the higher the resolution needs to be to maintain a good PPD. This might be the last feature manufacturers will focus on, maybe in a decade's time. ~100 is a good minimum for an immersive experience, while lack of clarity holds the experience back.
If we bring all this together, the next 2 big milestones will be kicked off by new display technologies. For predictions, we can only count on other components improving linearly as there are no clear pathways for major breakthroughs.
Generation 2 of VR headsets starts in 2025-2027 with micro-OLED. Together with pancake lenses, they allow for a comfortable form factor. Just the display will improve both efficiency and clarity. Add on top improvements in mobile chipsets pushed forward by Apple Silicon and we will eventually see 4k displays per eye. This is the moment when we can substitute existing screens for VR headsets.
The second milestone is generation 1 of AR devices with microLED. We will finally have a small enough form factor that's efficient and provides a high FoV. Understanding what's necessary for AR glasses gives us a timeframe of at least 2030.
By the end of the decade, we can expect to have small VR headsets in the 30-40 PPD range and a glimpse of the start of the consumer AR market. That's a 10-year delay on the industry's predictions from 10 years ago. We are still many technological breakthroughs away from XR headsets that blend the real and the digital completely.
We thought 2016 would be the iPhone moment of VR. It was more like the launch of the Macintosh for the PC market. One could get a glimpse of what was to come, but neither the hardware nor software was there yet, much less cheap enough. The iPhone moment is far away. We're much closer to the 90s when PCs entered some of our homes and Internet applications hinted at the possibilities to come.
One thing Michael Abrash did get right: "These are the good old days". The tech industry was so much fun in the 80s and 90s. Many teams from diverse backgrounds got together to build the future. The stories I've read from that period breathe a different energy from those of the past 20 years. People were unafraid to try out weird ideas and they had a positive outlook on what was to come.
We have no idea of what's possible with VR. It's a whole new medium. We're still at the stage where ideas are direct translations of what we already do in 2D. The most interesting game mechanics have come from smaller developers that understood the medium well. There's so much left to explore. VR is a new way to play, connect with each other, interact with our digital lives, and create art. It's at the perfect intersection to once again bring together a wide range of people to build the future.
There's a lot to invent and it's going to take time. The hardware may not be ideal yet, but next-gen devices with micro OLED and pancake lenses will be commonplace in 2-3 years. These headsets will be comfortable enough to wear for hours and read text clearly. We'll start using them to substitute existing displays, manipulate text, creation tools, and productivity applications.
Matthew Ball wrote in a recent post: "For most VR buyers today, the device is their 4th or 5th computer after a PC/Mac, smartphone, tablet, and console. Unless an XR device can replace one of these devices, people are unlikely to adopt it." We are close. And while that statement is true to reach mass-market, it doesn't mean there is no market. Several indie developers have found success, and more will continue to do so. There are 20M headsets out there— most stored away as the software isn't interesting enough — and that number will continue to grow. We can build meaningful applications that are entertaining or solve problems in ways that weren't possible before. It's up to us to use the capabilities of current and next-generation hardware to prove how magical VR can be and bring those headsets out of the cupboard.
All PPD calculations were made assuming a 100-degree field of view.
It might get cancelled due to the Quest Pro's poor reception.
Bigscreen Beyond is a headset with MicroOLED displays and pancake lenses and it comes out this year. As it's a higher-end PCVR device, it won't be mass market though.