Virtual reality (VR) didn’t exactly overwhelm CES 2018. While voice-based products such as Amazon Alexa flexed their muscles in cars, homes, and everywhere in between, VR demonstrations struggled to demonstrate their value outside gimmicky experiences and games, thus reinforcing a popular perception that only consumers with deep pockets and a love of games are buying into the future of VR.

This point was reinforced in an article by WIRED’s Jeffrey Van Camp, “At CES, Everyone Is Still Hunting for VR’s Killer App.” Van Camp provided a brief tour of VR apps that placed VR firmly in a box labeled “Forgettable Fun and Games.” For instance, Samsung showcased an experience where attendees wear VR headsets and then sit in chairs that flip people upside down. (“Fun, yes—but the Gear VR you buy at home doesn’t come with a kinetic gyro seat,” Van Camp wrote. “The gimmicky demos illustrated how underwhelming the standard mobile VR experience is right now.”) Lenovo demonstrated a mobile VR app that transports the user inside the world of Blade Runner 2049. Black Box demonstrated an experience that involves shooting fireballs at a giant flying dragon.

To be sure, chasing dragons and sitting in gyrating furniture can be fun, but for how long, and at what cost? In the article, GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart refers to these experiences as “drawerware” because after a user is done with playing with them, they put the VR equipment “in the back of a drawer.”

An industry built off one-and-done experiences, however fun they are initially, won’t grow very well even if mobile VR headsets become affordable enough that anyone can buy them. On the consumer side, VR is in danger of becoming like Microsoft Surface, a pleasant experience failing to find a sustainable use.

Gartner research analyst Brian Blau told WIRED “There is a mismatch between what the hype is and the reality of the devices and the tech [on the market]. I don’t think there’s anyone to blame for that. The hype has been around for as long as I’ve been doing it, but it’s disappointing.”

But I believe someone is to blame for the mismatch: businesses that lose sight of customer empathy. Gimmicky VR apps are the result of businesses focusing on technology first instead of putting people first. Seriously, how many people really want to tumble around in kinetic gyro seats?

Human-centered design means putting ourselves in the shoes of users and employing a process for designing applications that address user wants and needs. Human-centered design means involving people in the design so that the business understands the subtle nuances that can make all the difference in the VR experience, such as how much physical space a person needs to move around a room when they use a VR app for a physically demanding experience such as exercise.

Human-centered design also means being willing to test ideas with users, reject the less useful ideas, and develop the ones that do truly resonate with people. To do so, at Moonshot we employ a process known as FUEL.  With FUEL, businesses employ techniques such as design thinking and lean innovation to rapidly prototype new product ideas and develop the best ones with minimal cost and risk. Only product ideas that pass the test of customer feedback get developed into scalable products. FUEL has two elements:

  • Design thinking: a team uses five-day design sprints to identify customer needs and prototype new product ideas that aspire to meet those needs. The team tests idea against customer feedback and narrows them down to a prototype for a minimum lovable product (MLP), or the initial version of the product that can generate the most customer love with the least amount of time and expense
  • Lean innovation: the business develops the MLP prototype into a real MLP that can then be scaled into a repeatable product in agile fashion.

Using a test-and-learn approach centered on the customer may actually result in a business realizing that VR actually won’t solve any particularly compelling user need. Instead, augmented reality or mixed reality might be the solution. Or perhaps neither augmented reality, mixed reality, or virtual reality may turn out to be the answer to the user need. If any of these outcomes is the case, then as a business you should congratulate yourself for getting one step closer to aligning technology with customer need. The technology just might not be the one you had in mind.

VR is not looking for a killer app. VR is looking to solve a human need. For more insight into how to get started designing products centered on the customer, read our recently released The Executive Guide to Immersive Reality.

Amish Desai

Amish Desai

Head of Experiences