VR’s missing link? A killer app that convinces us to buy in

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By Ian Sherr

Chika Umeadi could be the poster child for what’s wrong with virtual reality today.

At a glance, he seems like the perfect candidate to buy a VR headset. He’s an app developer and techie. He loves video games. He’s 30, unmarried and says he has the means to splurge when he wants to.

Yet even though the Chicagoan has tried a friend’s VR gear several times, and even slipped on the fabled Magic Leap mixed-reality headset that was released in August, he’s just not convinced enough to buy a device of his own.

“It’s low on my priority list right now,” he says. “I can’t see a reason to buy it.”

What’s missing, industry insiders say, is a killer app, the experience that gets everyone buzzing that they just have to try it and possibly even buy one of their own.

As a result, people are expected to buy only 8.7 million headsets this year, up from 7.1 million last year and 6.7 million the year before, according to data from industry watcher SuperData Research. That includes Oculus VR’s $399 Rift headset, which was released in 2016, two years after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bought the company for more than $2 billion.

It’s not like there aren’t cool VR experiences. One of the most popular right now is Beat Saber, a $20 rhythm game in which you slice through bricks to the beat of a song. It’s become the top-selling VR game on the popular Valve Steam Store, and people who’ve filmed themselves playing have garnered millions of views on YouTube.

But even with those successes, the money that might help fund developers, game studios and others working on those killer apps seems to be drying up.

Venture funding for consumer VR software companies may drop by more than half this year, to $265 million from $576 million a year ago, SuperData says. It’s even a third lower than funding levels in 2015, just after Facebook’s Oculus acquisition.

VCs aren’t the only ones cooling on VR. Industry executives and developers tell me that alternative sources are drying up, too. They say Hollywood marketing teams, which had tapped companies to build VR apps to hype hit movies such as 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and TV shows including Game of Thrones, are paying less and appear to be more cautiously approaching projects.

Even early VR boosters are tapping the brakes. Samsung, which was one of the first to market with its Gear VR mobile headset, didn’t say anything about VR in its major headset announcements this year.

That’s sure to be on the minds of the more than 2,500 developers heading to San Jose for Facebook’s fifth annual Oculus Connect developer conference, starting Wednesday. There, they’ll brainstorm in talks like “the next generation of storytelling,” “video that doesn’t suck” and, tellingly, “building brand + community (on a budget).”

“There has been a cool-down in general in terms of investment,” said Tipatat Chennavasin, a general partner at the Venture Reality Fund. Companies are still getting funded, he notes, and new initiatives like VR arcades, where people can go to a mall or a warehouse and play VR games in a large room, are gaining traction.

The wait for VR’s eventual uptick has already been too long for Nicolás Alcalá, a film producer in LA who founded a well-regarded VR studio Future Lighthouse in 2015. At the beginning of this year, he had to shut down because he couldn’t raise enough money to keep going.

People need a reason to try VR and they don’t have it yet, he said. “The industry is hoping people will embrace this new technology that isn’t yet so useful, but it’s cool.”

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