Virtual Reality’s iPhone Moment

People are expressing disillusionment with the VR industry. This is a mistake. It’s exactly where it needs to be. Every new technology industry needs time to gestate, even one with a nose-bleed growth-rate like VR.

People say it hasn’t lived up to the hype. And it hasn’t. Not yet. So it’s fair to ask: when exactly will it live up to the hype?

For every new technology industry, there’s a point in its development when it becomes cool. When it’s no longer the remit of nerds in the basement — it’s a popular item that is sought by the general population. This is when hype and reality collide in a sonic boom of window-shattering glory.

Apple has timed these breakout moments well. It has been in large part responsible for making new technology products popular. The iPhone made smartphones cool; the Mac made computers cool, the iPod made MP3 players cool.

Not Cool

There’s a sweet spot for a new product’s coming out party. It’s around 100 million unit sales a year. The first iPhone was released in 2007 when smartphone global annual sales reached 120mm. The Apple iMac was released in 1998, when global PC sales hit 90mm.

Cool

This is when a technology starts to be a cultural force. When it becomes cool.

So the smart money would be on a must-have VR product coming out whenever VR devices hit the 100 million unit sales a year mark. When is this likely to happen?

VR sales are increasing rapidly, with 2017 set to reach around 4 million unit sales for high-end devices, compared to 1.5 last year. If this rate continues (around 170% increase year-on-year), VR could have it’s iPhone moment some time in 2021.

That’s probably the most optimistic outcome. What’s the most pessimistic? Before answering this, it’s worth taking a step back and considering the adoption rate of previous technologies.

Smartphone sales increased around 50% year over year (yoy). It hit maybe over 60% at it’s peak. PCs growth was much slower: was 15% to 20% yoy.

Every time a new technology emerges, it is adopted faster than previous technologies. Smartphone growth (50%) was three times PC growth (15%). If VR is again three the growth rate, it should grow by 150% to 180%, which is what we are seeing with this year’s projected sales.

So I think it’s safe to say that the worst case scenario is that the VR adoption rate will increase by 50% year on year.

Here are the two projections of the best-case and worst-case VR sales volumes.

The take home message is that it’ll still be a few years before your grandmother is using one. But everyone will be in VR ten years from now.

VR will break out like a Hemingway character going bankrupt.

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”