Teens slow to adopt VR and more bad news for the metaverse

(Image by Maria Korolov via Midjourney.)

Virtual reality hasn’t caught on with American teens, according to a new survey from Piper Sandler released on Tuesday.

While 29 percent percent of teens polled owned a VR device — versus 87% who own iPhones — only 4 percent of headset owners used it daily, and just 14 percent used them weekly.

Teenagers also didn’t seem that interested in buying forthcoming VR headsets either. Only 7 percent said they planned to purchase a headset, versus 52 percent of teens polled who were unsure or uninterested.

That’s not the only bad news for VR that’s come out recently.

Bloomberg has reported that Sony’s new PlayStation VR2 Headset is projected to sell 270,000 units as of the end of March, based on data from IDC. It had originally planned to sell 2 million units in the same time period, Bloomberg reported last fall.

In fact, VR headset numbers in general are down.

According to IDC, headset shipments declined 21 percent last year to 8.8 million units.

“This survey only further exemplifies that the current state of VR is very business-focused,” said Rolf Illenberger, managing director of VRdirect, a company that provides enterprise software solutions for the metaverse and virtual reality.

“The pandemic further accelerated progress for VR and AR usability in the office, while the release of new devices will mean more for developers building practical use cases than they will for teenagers seeking entertainment,” he told Hypergrid Business.

But that might be wishful thinking.

According to IDC, both consumer and enterprise interest in virtual reality fell last year.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how Microsoft and other companies have pulled back on their VR and AR plans. And the bad news has continued to come in.

In mid March, Google announced the end of Google Glass Enterprise. And, last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Disney shut down its metaverse team and the Truth in Advertising nonprofit advocacy group reported that Walmart had shut down its Roblox virtual experience.

Even Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg seems to have soured on the metaverse. In his March letter announcing a “year of efficiency” and layoffs of 10,000 people, Zuckerberg said that the company was now going to focus on AI.

“Our single largest investment is in advancing AI and building it into every one of our products,” he wrote. So much for the metaverse being Meta’s biggest investment. In 2021 and 2022, Reality Labs — its metaverse division — reported a total loss of nearly $24 billion.

Given the explosion of interest in AI since ChatGPT was released late last year, and its clear and obvious business benefits, I have serious doubts that anyone is going to be investing much in enterprise VR this year.

After all, generative AI is clearly poised to solve a multitude of business challenges, starting with improved efficiencies in marketing, customer service, and software development. And virtual reality continues to be a technology in search of a problem to solve.

I’m a huge, huge fan of OpenSim. But, other than giving a presentation at the OpenSim Community Conference in December, I can’t remember the last time I went in-world for a meeting. It’s all Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, and occasionally Microsoft Teams.

Oh, and here’s another downer. I watched the Game Developers Conference presentations from Nvidia, Unreal Engine, and Unity. I don’t play video games much, other than on my phone, so I hadn’t noticed just how amazing graphics, environments and characters have become. I originally watched for the AI announcements, which were insane, but the realism of the visuals just blew me away. I’m feeling the urge to run out and buy a gaming console.

(Image courtesy Unreal Engine.)

Now, general purpose platforms like OpenSim don’t have to have the same level of graphics to be successful. The early web, for example, had very poor graphics compared to what was available from commercial add-ons like Flash. And look at Minecraft — you can’t get any worse than that, graphics-wise.

So while the graphics were awesome, that’s not why I was most concerned. No, I was looking at the AI-powered environment generation features. And it’s not just Unreal and Unity. There are a bunch of AI-powered startups out there making it super easy to create immersive environments, interactive characters, and everything else needed to populate a virtual world.

With the basic Unreal and Unity plans available for free, is it even worth it for developers to try to add these AI features to OpenSim? It might feel like putting a jet engine on a horse-drawn buggy. I mean, you could try, but the buggy would probably explode into splinters the minute you turned it on.

Am I wrong?

Will we be able to step into OpenSim and say, “I want a forest over there,” and see a forest spring up in front of us? Will we be able to have AI-powered NPCs we can talk to in real time? And will we be able to create interactive and actually playable in-world experience beyond just dance-and-chat and slot machines?

There’s good news, though.

AI tools are helping to accelerate everything, including software development and documentation. With the big players pulling back from enterprise VR, this gives an opportunity for open source platforms like OpenSim to use those tools, grab this window of opportunity, and catch up. Maybe even take the lead in the future hyperlinked, open source, interconnected metaverse.

Maria Korolov