Like most years, the 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona devoted an exhibition hall to phone makers.

Everyone except Apple was there. Samsung, Huawei, LG, HTC and Microsoft attended, along with less familiar brands. They demonstrated virtual reality systems based on Android phones. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated similar technology in the conference hall.

Virtual reality was, they told us, "The next big thing."

Except it wasn’t. It didn't happen. Not this time.

You can still buy VR hardware, but it is rare. As the Americans say, it’s "a freak show".

We've been here before. Technology media first got excited about VR in the mid-1990s, then again a decade later. Expect another cycle around 2025.

The first time around, VR graphics were blocky. Movement was jerky. The headsets and VR gloves needed to make it work were clunky. They were heavy enough to challenge anyone who wasn’t an Olympic weightlifter.

Demonstrations lasted seconds. Hardware and networks were not up to delivering data fast enough to make VR worthwhile. There were few apps, games or otherwise.

We did get a lot hype though. And near useless kit that, by now, will be landfill.

Mind you, at times that hype was impressive. There was talk of a new media revolution. Grubby types even suggested we could soon indulge in realistic cybersex.

One less frivolous computer company did talk about business apps. It suggested analysts might stand in a virtual field of wheat blowing in the wind. There, they would somehow spot what was wrong with their company’s business strategy.

That company was Silicon Graphics. At the time it was hot. It championed serious VR. Today it is a forgotten brand.

You didn't have to look far at Barcelona to understand why VR flopped. Almost every phone maker showed the same VR demonstration: a roller-coaster ride. There was almost no other content.

That's the problem, right there. It costs a fortune to create VR content. A blockbuster Hollywood movie might have a budget of a few hundred million dollars. VR is more complicated. Cameras need to shoot scenes from more angles. VR needs more equipment and personnel, and more backroom processing.

That means a huge investment. Given a restricted audience, there is less potential return. To earn a profit, prices need to be sky high.

The technology is there. Hardware and networks are fast enough to deliver VR, but there’s no business model for content. At least not yet. Wake me up when there is one.


Bill Bennett is a journalist and broadcaster. He has spent most of the last 30 years writing about technology and business. He edits The Download