With gaming failing to drive adoption, the pandemic’s instance on virtual events may provide a new entry point to virtual reality.

If anything should give the yet-to-ignite market for virtual reality (VR) a needed boost, it would be a long and enforced period of self-isolation. Gaming – traditionally considered VR’s core-use case – experienced a huge uptick in the first half of this year. According to Nielsen the number of people who said they were playing video games more because of the pandemic grew 46 per cent in the US between March and August, followed by France (41 per cent), the UK (28 per cent) and Germany (23 per cent). Even the release of a dedicated VR edition of one of the world’s most popular game franchises earlier this year only pushed VR headset use on the main PC gaming platform Steam to just under two per cent.

Indeed, the market for VR headsets is expected to decline 6.7 per cent in 2020 according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Quarterly Augmented and Virtual Reality Headset Tracker. That’s on top of modest growth of just 5 per cent in 2019, according to Futuresource Consulting. Last year also saw significant hardware and media players such as Google and the BBC drop out of the market because, as the search giant stated at the time, ‘there hasn't been the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped’. All in all, while 2020’s contraction is also in part due to supply chain challenges, VR’s outlook is a long way from the paradigm-shifting predictions Oculus founder Palmer Luckey made seven years ago.

That’s why 2020 feels like it could go down as a chance missed, as the last few months have seen a surge in the creation of VR media in some sectors. Music is the standout example, with major festivals like Glastonbury, Burning Man and Wireless all investing in VR alternatives to their cancelled live events. In tech terms, these might have had VR as the headliner, but they were also viewable in other, more accessible formats. With consumers currently owning just 26 million virtual reality headsets globally according to data from tech consulting firm Omdia, the latter is was likely far more popular. ‘I don’t think this crisis is a massive opportunity for VR, because there’s just not enough headsets out there to make a big impact,’ Omdia senior analyst George Jijiashvili told CNBC.

The reasons for this low adoption rate are well established, with consumers still finding the requisite hardware too expensive and too complex. One bridge that we’ve repeatedly written about was the rise of arcades that allowed people to experience the latest VR technology at a relatively small cost. According to its owners, VR arcade Otherworld was attracting over 1,000 visitors a week when it opened in London two years ago, 60 per cent of which were female and half aged 25-34. But the pandemic has predictably made that nascent industry unviable, with reports that innovators such as Disney, Spaces and Sandbox all pulling out or shutting down. Otherworld reopened in July, but with the UK entering a second lockdown, it may have to close again.

The pandemic is creating some new channels for VR adoption, however, particularly with regard to the conference and symposium circuit. Events like this weekend’s Circular Fashion summit have struck deals with hardware providers to include headsets as part of the ticket price. Global HR Summit did something similar earlier this month, shipping VR units to all its keynote speakers. With data showing that many attendees enjoy and would like to see a continuation of digital conferences and trade shows, such bundles could be a means of improving engagement and maintaining ticket prices. It’s not the perception-warping future many envisaged for the technology, but it may be the best chance it’s currently got.

Hero image: MBADV'S Virtual Reality Cinema for the 2019 Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival was an intimate space-within-a-space, featuring plush and calming private rooms – made up of Normann Copenhagen’s Hyg lounge chairs and pillar-constructed walls. Photo: Courtesy of Normann Copenhagen