Why Virtual Reality will differ from 3D Printing in consumer adoption

2016 is turning out to be a big year for virtual reality. However, people’s opinion of VR is still divided: Some think it is a fad, while others believe it will transform our society. The skepticism is understandable. The hype of new technologies often fails to live up to our short term expectations. Sometimes it’s because the evolution just takes longer than initially anticipated. Sometimes it’s because the expectations were based on faulty assumptions. 3D printing is a recent example. Five years ago, many tech blogs described a near future in which every family would own a 3D printer to create anything from tools, cutlery, spare parts to toys directly from the comfort of their own home.

Today, we know that this has not become the case. That said, the development of low-cost 3D printing has still had a sizeable impact — just not in the order of magnitude that people expected. The range of businesses that now utilizes 3D printing has certainly expanded. Before, 3D printing was strictly used by the largest manufactures such as Boeing and NASA. Today, 3D printing is used by jewelers, dentists, and product designers for prototyping and custom production. However, the only consumer group that has adopted the technology is the so called “makers”, a small subgroup of hobbyists who are known to embrace the newest technologies in the early stages.

This is the launch year of Virtual Reality (VR). This year, Samsung, Oculus, HTC, Sony and Xiaomi are all releasing hardware, promising us immersive media experiences. A VR experience could include ‘teleporting’ you to a million-dollar condo in Manhattan, when in reality you’re actually wearing a helmet in a real estate office thousands of kilometers away. Or it might include a history class, taking students all the way back to the Stone Age to illustrate the life of ancient ancestors.

In light of the case of 3D printing, it seems reasonable to be sceptic of the hype surrounding VR. However, if you dive deeper, you will find that the two cases are fundamentally different. Those difference are the reason why I feel that VR might even exceed the expectations that most of us hold today.

Reason One: Consumer Behavior

Mainstream adoption of 3D printing relied on the premise that consumer behaviors would change. However, changing behaviour is often more difficult than expected. For example if an item breaks, our instinct is to either return it, call customer service, or buy a replacement. Generally, we don’t consider repairing it ourselves, as it would require too much time — even if we had a 3D printer that could print out a spare part. In psychology, this is also referred to as the path of least resistance, stating that when we’re facing multiple options, we will usually pick the option that requires the least work.

Driven by platforms such as SnapChat, YouTube and Vine, video consumption is growing at a historic pace. In fact, video consumption has risen more than 200% between 2011 and 2015. Not only do we consume more video content, we’re also creating it ourselves. Equipped with smartphone and user-friendly apps, almost anyone can create high quality video’s today.

On a high level, the trend for the video medium has always been to provide the most realistic experience as possible. We began with blurry black and white TV screens without sound, but gradually moved towards technologies that better represented reality: Color and high resolution screens, curved TVs and 3D glasses. VR will be the last frontier, removing us from the boundaries of two-dimensional experiences and encapsulating us in world so real that our brain will trigger physical sensations when riding a virtual rollercoaster. Compared to 3D printing, VR does not rely on changing people’s habits or desires. Instead, it follows the trajectory since the very first TV was produced.

Reason Two: User-friendliness

Although free tools like SketchUp makes the creation of 3D dimensional objects as intuitive and user-friendly as Google’s other products. 3D printing still requires finesse and time. Printing even a regular chess piece can take up to a few hours — and every so often the printer “breaks down”, which requires professional help to fix. With consumer expectations at an ‘all-time’ high, this is not conducive for every-day families — especially those with younger children.

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel tries a simple VR experience with a Google Cardboard

VR, on the other hand, does not require any training. You put on a pair of goggles and you’re immediately transported to a different universe. Subconsciously, your brain renders the visual input through stereoscopically formed lenses to create a 3D image. The challenge with VR is ensuring an experience that pixel for pixel imitates the real world — especially while matching head motion with visuals.

Screen resolution that is too low and include latency from head movements cause the subject to feel dizzy. The difference between today’s low-end and high-end VR headsets is the time before you might feel nausea (the range is individual but around 10 minutes to a few hours). However, with improved computing power and screen resolution this range will no doubt improve over the coming years.

Reason Three: Timing

When multiple trends converge, new opportunities emerge. Just observe how cloud infrastructure, smartphones, and social media have changed our society over the last five years. 3D printing has benefitted from two main trends: The falling prices of electronic components and the rise of ‘hacker’ culture. However, consumer behavior is still a major hurdle to overcome in terms of mainstream adoption.

Education in 3D printing at public schools might change our behavior over time. Another alternative is to completely ignore human behavior and wait for intelligent products will be able to make decisions for us. Once simple intelligence and connectivity are inserted into all objects, it seems reasonable that objects would be able to troubleshoot themselves, identify “bad” components, and independently figure out whether to print or order a new part.

Nintendo released its Virtual Reality Boy in 1995, but it was too early in terms of the available technology

The first VR headset was invented (and patented) by Morton Heiling all the way back in 1960. Almost 30 years later the first commercial effort was made to distribute VR to the masses. People who were lucky enough to try it generally proclaimed that VR was going to turn the world upside down within the next 10 years. However, instead of VR, consumers were exposed to better TVs and mobile phones in the 2000’s.

It wasn’t because of a lack in capability that VR wasn’t available, the cost of components, including screen, processors and gyroscope, was simply too expensive for the regular consumer to buy. Today, because of the scale of the smartphone revolution, hardware costs have decreased exponentially. This, combined with faster internet speeds, parallel processing power of GPU’s, and platforms such as Unity, has made VR affordable (as little as $10) to anyone who owns a smartphone and up to a few thousands for the most premium device.


3D printing and VR face completely different challenges. 3D printing has yet to be mass adopted by consumers — mainly because of barriers related to consumer behaviour and user-friendliness. Virtual Reality, on the other hand, does not require any skills to use. The technology behind VR has fascinated people for decades, yet technology (screen resolution, gyroscopes, and processing power) and hardware costs have prohibited mass adoption until now. I’m not arguing that VR is superior to 3D printing. No one can predict how the future will unfold. However, I do believe that consumer adoption of VR technology will follow a different trajectory than 3D printing.

“The future is here; It’s just not yet evenly distributed”
– P. Larnier in 1989 when he tried one of the world’s first VR headset.