The VR App Stores’ Rocky Road
Over the past week, I have been playing with the Mirage Solo with Daydream, the standalone VR headset recently released by Lenovo. The headset uses the Daydream VR platform that has been available to the Daydream View Headset since 2017. The key difference with the Mirage Solo, as the name gives away, is that you no longer require a phone to experience VR. The Mirage Solo also does not need a PC like the HTC Vive or Oculus. It is, in fact, a direct competitor to the Oculus Go but uses a new technology called WorldSense that allows to track the world around you, or at least a good square meter or so of it.
Overall I felt that the Mirage Solo delivers a decent experience and I very much appreciate not having to worry about the phone overheating or running out of battery. I also felt the freedom from cables was a welcome improvement to my Oculus experience even though it did not take much moving around before WorldSense would ask to re-center the device. The peace of mind from walking around without worrying about tripping and the instant-on of wearing the headset and starting to enjoy content right away was a good start for me.
The Content and Devices Causality Dilemma
Content is where the Mirage Solo shows its weakness. The good news is that out of the box the Mirage Solo has access to all the Daydream apps that are available in the Google Play Store and the YouTube content. The bad news is that the Daydream apps are all there is.
The content is not bad, but it is limited. Some of it really does a disservice to the Mirage Solo as it lacks the quality someone investing $400 in the device would like to see. And this is the issue. Creating good quality content for VR is not cheap, and developers might be reticent to invest in doing so while the addressable market is limited and understandably so. Good quality content comes at a price, with apps that cost as much as $19.99. As users might first try free or cheaper content, the lack of quality might put them off spending more. I find this to be a problem for the Play Store in particular, as consumers have been historically spending less money, relying on free apps more than in the iOS App Store. Delivering ad-funded apps in VR might also be more complex if you want to keep true to the content or extremely annoying if you are not!
Lenovo smartly launched the Mirage Camera with Daydream so that users can create their immersive content by shooting videos that they can then enjoy with the Mirage Solo. That $300 price tag, however, might mostly appeal to early adopters.
While AR has similar issues with lack of compelling apps, users are not investing extra money in a device to try AR in the same way VR users do. It seems that the interim step of screen-less viewers is coming to an end and the industry wants to move towards standalone headsets for the mass market which makes content availability even more critical.
A Different Set of Rules
As I was trying different apps, I was also left wanting a different in-store purchase experience. With traditional apps, looking at the screenshots and reading the reviews is usually enough to get a sense of how good an app will be. I found that with VR there are way more variables at play.
The target audience age is the first thing you see when looking at purchasing an app, which is pretty straightforward. After that, you are given a sense of how much motion You will experience, which should be an indication of how sick you might feel if you do suffer from motion sickness. I do, and I found that the guidance was a bit of a hit and miss. Aside from those couple of points, you really do not get a sense for how immersive the app will be both from a realistic perspective and an engagement one.
It seems to me that free trials are a must in a VR app store. Apple introduced the ability for developers to offer free trials for subscriptions apps in 2017, after resisting the idea for quite some time. This would work best for entertainment apps but not necessarily for all VR apps. The shift in spending from new apps to in-app purchase we have seen over the past couple of years within traditional app stores comes from many developers offering a free app and then opening up levels or features at a price. I am not sure this technique would necessarily work with VR where maybe a time-based approach might be preferable. You get ten minutes of the full experience before you are asked to pay for the app. Of course, developers can still open up levels and sell cheats but a watered down free version of the app might just not be compelling enough to get consumers to want more.
I also wonder if subscription services, similar to Xbox Live Gold, might be a good idea for power users, especially at this stage of market adoption when you want users to experience as much as possible and start evangelizing. Of course, big titles will build on the success of their traditional apps and might not need further help to reach success. Yet, I am hoping VR will open up the market to new titles and different experiences.
Overall I see the addressable market for VR coming from a blend of traditional gaming and mobile content consumption which spans from games to video to educational and productivity apps. The more opportunities to try good quality content mainstream users will have the more rapid the adoption will be as with VR trying is indeed believing.