The renaissance of virtual reality, which began in 2014 with the acquisition of the start-up Oculus by Facebook combined with Sony’s announcement of the Morpheus project, will not have been as meteoric as its most enthusiastic supporters would have liked.
The commercial launch of the Oculus Rift, then the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR in 2016 will end in a success of esteem, but not an explosive adoption on the part of the general public. There is no shortage of reasons: bulky equipment, the need to use a relatively powerful computer, limited available experiences, quite high price. The birds of ill omen gave themselves to their hearts’ content, but the sector continued to progress.
“The Christmas of VR”
Five years later, VR finally seems to be having its moment. Or at least, this is the case for a very particular player in the market: Meta. Initiator of this resurrection, Mark Zuckerberg’s company has not stopped investing and innovating to convince the general public of the interest of this technology. The result: its latest headset, the Oculus Quest 2, finally seems to have reached an inflection point. Affordable (329 euros), qualitative (resolution, tracking, software) and autonomous (it does not require connection to another device to work), it had everything to please.
Its success was immediate when it was released in October 2020, but it has crossed a threshold this year. Much in demand during the holidays, both in the United States and in Europe, its sales have exploded, to the point of making it the first product sold in the “video games” category on Amazon in weeks, or even months. The Oculus mobile application (which serves as a “companion” to the headset), even went number one on the App Store and the Google Play Store in some countries (especially the United States) on December 25th.
Developers do not hide their joy either, as this material success necessarily reverberates on application sales. Many freelancers who believed in VR and hung on for years are finally seeing their efforts rewarded. For example, the Golf + game had its record sales on December 24, and saw them multiply even more the next day. Gorilla Tag, a popular game but not available on the Quest 2 main store (requiring an extra effort to download it), reached around 350,000 users on December 26th. There is no doubt that the flagship titles like Resident Evil 4, Beat Saber or VRChat are even more successful.
A favorable context for the rise of Quest 2
A phenomenon due in part to the out of stock of traditional game consoles: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, but also the new Oled Switch. Meta, which had suffered supply problems with the first Oculus Quest, managed to release the Quest 2 in record time and by returning its components so that it was cheaper, could be mass-produced without a hitch, and remains viable for several years thanks to a newer chip.
A tour de force that paid off during the holidays. With its unbeatable price-performance ratio and its software library sparing quality and quantity, the Quest 2 is undoubtedly the VR headset with the strongest value proposition created so far.
Meta does not communicate its sales figures, but on November 16, Cristiano Amon, CEO of Qualcomm (which supplies the Snapdragon XR2 of the Quest 2), had announced in passing that the Oculus Quest 2 represented 10 million sales. He had quickly clarified afterwards that this was only an estimate based on independent studies, but Qualcomm necessarily knowing and very precisely the number of units sold of the Quest 2 because it provides one of its main components, the accuracy of the information is not really in doubt.
10 million… what’s next?
Others will probably say that 10 million units sold (or even 15, or 20), that’s not a lot. And this is true if we compare it to the 70 million smartphones that Samsung sells every quarter. It will nevertheless be recalled that Apple sold only 11.5 million iPhones in 2008, but above all, comparing the two markets does not really make sense. The Oculus Quest 2 serves today mainly as a gaming console, although it can be used for meditation, physical exercise, watching movies or socializing remotely. From this point of view, he is a respectable competitor and should remain so.
However, and this was Meta’s bet from the start, the potential of virtual reality does not end there. The technology is also already finding its uses in the professional world (for training in particular), and the company’s next headset (codename: Cambria) should extend these features to make it an alternative to the laptop for certain tasks, while developing its capabilities for augmented reality. This is also what Apple, whose headset is supposed to be unveiled at the end of 2022, seems to be aiming for. Other manufacturers, whether ByteDance (publisher of TikTok, which bought Pico), Google or Samsung also have projects in progress.
A prelude to augmented reality glasses
The smartphone has nothing to worry about at the moment, because these headsets are not trying to compete with it. However, as technology will continue to advance and the available applications will multiply (something that will accelerate now that the market has reached a reasonable size), they should set up as a new channel for entertainment, remote communication and work, alongside consoles, computers, televisions and, yes, the famous smartphones.
They will also pave the way for other devices that are even more complex to design: augmented reality glasses that could be worn all day, and which, for their part, clearly aim to replace smartphones eventually. But this is another pair of sleeves.