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I gave up on VR, but I believe again. Sort of

Commentary: Aren't Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR just fads? People smarter than me disagree with my pessimism. Weird, says CNET's Daniel Van Boom.

VR took my breath away the first time I tried it. Literally. I was so terrified by a horror game I could barely breathe by the end of it.

"This isn't some gimmick," I thought at the time. "This is the future." It's a sense of wonder Kanye West must feel when he listens to music by Kanye West.

That was two years ago, when I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at Sony's PlayStation VR. The horror game in question was a VR experience called The Kitchen. I've since come to hate the phrase "VR experience." And kitchens.

The PlayStation VR has since been released (our CNET review called it "actually pretty great") and gotten a subsequent price cut, from $459 down to $399 (£329, AU$549). HTC's Vive and Facebook's Oculus Rift, which scored CNET reviews of 8.1 and 8.0, respectively, are also out there, recently getting even bigger price cuts. And at least six new Windows Mixed Reality headsets from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Samsung just hit the market too, all priced between $400 and $500 -- with controllers included.

Two years ago I thought by 2017 I'd be driven to reclusivity by VR bliss, but guess how many of those headsets I own? Zero. 

There hasn't been reason to. Too many experiences, not enough games or useful applications.

It's not just me who feels that way. The Oculus Rift sold only around 250,000 units in its first year. Epic Games' director said HTC's Vive is outselling the Rift, but no one really knows since HTC, as with all other companies, is reluctant to release sales figures. Sony is the exception, announcing last month that a million PSVR units -- a virtual reality add-on for its PlayStation 4 console -- have shipped. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

That sounds great, until you realize there are almost 68 million PS4s in the world. In other words, about 98.5 percent of PlayStation owners have not yet taken the virtual-reality plunge. 

So, yeah. VR numbers are far from where they want to be.

As recently as late October, I was under the impression that VR, or at least this iteration of it, was a fad. Since then, I've spoken to a few industry types about the future of computers. Weirdly, they don't share my VR pessimism.

"I liken it to when colour TV first came out," Joe Olmsted, PC development manager at Dell Gaming, told me last month at the PAX Australia games convention in Melbourne, Australia. "There wasn't a lot of content for it, and almost everything was a tech demo."

Hey, that does sound like VR!

We're at the slow part of the curve, he said of VR, but the explosion is coming. Not just VR, though, as he expects augmented reality (AR) to be big as well. (Confused about the difference? TL;DR: VR transports you to a whole new virtual world, AR puts information on top of the real world.) 

The week before PAX, AMD Chief Technical Officer Joe Macri was in Sydney speaking about new AMD-powered laptops (they look good, by the way). He seemed to think highly of our new realities as well. He went as far as to suggest virtual- and augmented-reality tech, with a healthy dose of artificial intelligence, would save the PC.

"When I look 10 years out, I don't see the phone form factor existing anymore. It's going to be replaced by glasses, or by things that are much more portable," he predicted, reasoning that devices that can do simple things like browse the internet and send messages will get smaller. Meanwhile, new tech like VR requires more power, so laptops and desktops will always be needed.


Click for more Boom With a View.

But what about the fact that VR headsets have been on shelves for around 18 months and have yet to pop the revolution off? He's not so worried. "Content takes a long time. A complex game takes years to develop right." Makes sense.

This all came up because I was asking people smarter than me about the future of PCs. PCs have been in a bit of a lull in recent years, with sales slowing each year. What can stop that? VR and AR, they all invariably said. 

The basic problem is that you can still browse Facebook and watch YouTube videos on your 5-year-old MacBook Air just fine, so why buy a new laptop? The exception here is among gamers, as new games demand new power in the form of new graphics cards or computers.

Gaming laptops are the fastest-growing segment in the PC market, according to Nvidia's senior PR manager, Bryan Del Rizzo. He adds that people typically buy new graphics cards every two to three years.

VR and AR, the idea goes, will bring the non-gamers in line. This tech isn't just about games, as supposedly it'll eventually be used by Hollywood, to broadcast sports, communicate with friends (think the next evolution of FaceTime), for medical purposes and so much more. It'll give everyone a reason to upgrade their computers. Yes, even you with the 5-year-old MacBook.

At least according to the people I spoke to.

The hype train will eventually pull in to Satisfaction Station. But when? Talking to these people revived my faith in VR returning from the dead, but then I looked into what's available for me to play right now. Most games, like Job Simulator and Smashbox Arena, look fun in the same way that playing a $5 iPhone game is. Nothing sticks out as being the next generation of entertainment.

But there are promising signs. Many see the amount of space VR wires and setup take as a roadblock, but Facebook last month announced a wireless headset, Oculus Go, and HTC followed this week. Plus, Skyrim VR looks to be the most substantial VR game yet, and it just hit PSVR. There's reason to have hope beyond what those inside the industry say.

Still, if I hear the phrase "VR experience" one more time, I think I might puke. Y'know, like the time I tried the VR puke simulator.

Correction, 9:01 a.m. AEST: Skyrim VR's release date is Nov. 17, not December.

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