Comparing the Growth of VR and PCs: Are They Similar? | Analysis in 2024

Growth of VR and PCs

Comparing the Growth of VR and PCs: Are They Similar? | Analysis in 2024

Three years ago, Ben Thompson wrote an article comparing the potential growth of the VR market to that of the PC market. Has his prediction come true?

Ben Thompson’s article is now three years old. Three years is usually an eternity in the tech world – It was around this time that Mark Zuckerberg rebranded his company as Meta and announced his vision for the metaverse. Over these three years, much has changed, and we now have a clearer understanding of the company’s vision. Surprisingly, many of Thompson’s insights still hold true, and I want to reflect on his words.

Microsoft and the Metaverse” was the article’s title. Thompson wrote extensively about the meaning, usability, and growth of the Metaverse. In short, he predicted VR would take off, similar to the PC revolution, once it offered a superior way to be productive. He also made an interesting comparison between Microsoft’s and Apple’s successes in different industries.

Apple created the iPhone, a device “infinitely more capable [than a mobile phone at the time] for only a few hundred more dollars.” Everyone knew what a phone was and how it could benefit their lives through calling and texting—essentially, exchanging information. This usability made the iPhone, with these features and much more, a huge success. PCs, on the other hand, were quite different.

“PCs, though, didn’t have that advantage: the vast majority of the consumer market had no knowledge of or interest in computers; rather, most people encountered computers for the first time at work. Employers bought their employees computers because computers made them more productive; then, once consumers were used to using computers at work, an ever increasing number of them wanted to buy a computer for their home as well. And, as the number of home computers increased, so did the market opportunity for developers of non-work applications like games.” Ben Thompson, in his blog Stratechery

Thompson emphasized that virtual reality devices will follow a similar path, taking off when employers give them to workers to enhance collaboration in a remote work world. However, he viewed this from the perspective of an employer during the COVID era, when everyone was confined to their homes. Three years later, remote work, while still popular, is not as significant as it was during the pandemic. People are not yet inclined to spend their time in virtual workrooms wearing headsets.

Yes, I said “not yet” because I believe Thompson has a point. It’s a good point, though somewhat flawed today. Below, I will explain why.

Quest 3 and Quest Pro

3 Years Later – What changed?

We know much more now than Thompson did then. Firstly, new and advanced mixed reality headsets have arrived, like the Apple Vision Pro and Meta Quest 3. Thompson correctly predicted that Apple would focus on AR rather than VR, but he argued that this was the wrong approach and that Virtual Reality would be more important than Augmented Reality.

Thompson believes VR collaboration and work are superior to those on a laptop screen due to the feeling of presence. This is true—if you’ve ever tried social apps in VR, you know it can feel like you’re next to living beings in the virtual world. However, no one works nor wants to work in Meta’s workrooms because of the cartoony-looking avatars (among other reasons, which I’ll discuss later).

This is Meta Workrooms. Avatars look very cartoony | Image: Meta

This is why companies like Apple and Meta focus heavily on hyperrealistic avatars. Thompson was right – VR can offer a superior working environment, but it won’t be limited to just remote work. It has the potential to be superior even compared to working in a real-life environment, but not only because of the convenience of being able to work from anywhere.

Imagine if headsets could project avatars as realistic as those in Meta’s Codec Avatars demo. Meta claims that Codec Avatars are mostly solved problem, except for the fundamental issue of the scanning process. But let’s assume it works: you can scan yourself using the headset in under a minute and have a hyperrealistic avatar. You could then join a virtual workroom and see all your teammates as realistically as if they were there. You could change the meeting room to anything you want or even transform your surroundings to match real life.

Meta’s Codec Avatars – Significant improvement over workrooms avatars | Image: Lex Fridman Interview

These avatars are already present in Apple’s Vision Pro as Spatial Personas, and they are expected to be included in the next Meta Quest Pro headset in 2025, codenamed “La Jolla”. These companies recognize the potential impact on people’s lives: initially, the headset will be purchased as a personal computer for work, but eventually, it will serve as a means to connect with others. Imagine calling a family member hundreds of miles away and instead of seeing their face on a handheld screen, you see them fully in 3D space—whether it’s in your own room or a virtual environment. It’s like they’ve teleported to you.

And yes, I mentioned that the headset will be purchased as a personal computer. However, ultra-realistic avatars won’t be the sole reason to buy this device as a computer. Earlier, when discussing the problems with Horizon Workrooms and why nobody uses it, I pointed out that there are many more issues to it – issues that are fundamental and not the fault of Horizon Workrooms itself.

What needs to be fixed?

Firstly, let’s talk about the headset’s resolution. It’s a straightforward issue. Apple Vision Pro has addressed this with incredibly pixel-dense panels, boasting a resolution of 3,660 × 3,200 per eye. While there’s always room for improvement, this resolution is currently top-notch and sufficient. It can effectively replace your monitor with its high-resolution OLED panels that deliver deep blacks and excellent contrast ratios. Plus, you can have as many of these screens as you need.

Secondly – the User Experience and User Interface, a major challenge in VR and AR. Apple has excelled in this area with its Gaze + Pinch hand interaction, offering a smooth and user-friendly experience. Using the Apple Vision Pro is convenient because it integrates seamlessly into the Apple ecosystem. You can extend your Mac screen simply by gazing and pinching, or easily copy something from your iPhone and paste it into your Vision Pro. These seemingly small details contribute to a cohesive and well-functioning operating system experience.

And thirdly, let’s talk about comfort. This is an area where most headsets fall short, except for options like Bigscreen Beyond, but this is a PCVR-only headset. Look, as a VR/AR enthusiast, I’m willing to spend 8 hours in a headset if it’s comfortable and convenient, with everything I need right there. But even I struggle with a 650g weight on the front. Consider casual users—they’ll always opt for a traditional PC if all they need is to sit down and turn on a PC. No discomfort on their heads, just a monitor in front of them.

Apple Vision Pro Mixed-Reality
Apple Vision Pro UI. | Image: Apple

If it’s lightweight, comfortable, high-resolution, and offers a significantly better experience than working remotely with your laptop, it could indeed become a staple in workplaces, provided by employers to enhance productivity. However, I believe the popularity of headsets will also stem from other factors like gaming, media consumption, and social connectivity simultaneously.

I agree with Thompson that the growth trajectory could resemble that of PCs, but only once XR technology matures further. However, times are different now than they were then; gaming is already a highly popular medium, and watching content proves to be a far superior experience on devices like the Apple Vision Pro compared to a traditional TV.

But look, there’s another aspect that Thompson didn’t address at the time. He was very focused on the VR side of things. I firmly believe that Augmented Reality (and Mixed Reality) will prove more useful than VR. Imagine a future where everyone in your household has a headset or glasses—just like any other personal electronic device, and you could synchronize everything you see. Want to watch a movie? Sure, let’s place a giant virtual screen that we both can see in the same room. The TV becomes unnecessary in such a scenario.

Overall, I believe that Thompson was correct about many things. Enterprises are likely to become a significant market for both VR and AR. Companies will invest in headsets if they improve fundamental aspects of work (However, glasses would be much more convenient in this case, as headsets are very personal devices that may not fit perfectly on everyone), and then more people will purchase them for broader uses like gaming or media consumption.

However, in my view, Augmented Reality (including Mixed Reality) will occupy a much larger portion of this space compared to VR. People will still use VR, but they probably won’t spend the majority of their day in virtual environments.

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