Why VR won't take over the world (and why AR will)

VR gets way too much attention in today's tech discussions. VR won't take over the world in the foreseeable future in the sense the Internet or smartphones did. Augmented reality, on the other hand, has every chance to become the defining technology of the next decade.

Let's make something clear before we go into details: virtual reality is huge. It's not going to go away, and things we learn about the interaction between technology and the human mind will be incredibly important down the road. But we won't all live in the Matrix. Not yet, at least.

You are probably familiar with Gartner's hype cycle model:

VR is quickly approaching what the model calls the "Peak of Inflated Expectations". VR enthusiasts dream about a world where we spend considerable time (if not all our day) in virtual worlds, doing... well, everything. This won't happen and not because the technology won't be good enough. Today's VR headsets, the Vive, the Oculus Rift or PSVR are not great, and the mobile VR solutions are very basic; but this will change. The VR headset of 2018 will be light and won't require half a dozen cables. The headsets of 2022 won't be much bulkier than a pair of sunglasses. So, what will prevent VR from going mainstream?

It's human nature. There are competing theories in psychology about what makes a person happy, but there are recognizable common themes. Connectedness or relatedness is definitely one of them: we need meaningful personal relationships to be happy; competence and a sense of accomplishment are another widely cited factors. We are incredibly quick in embracing technologies empowering us as human beings. The landline telephone, the personal computer, the Internet, the smartphone makes us more competent and more connected. VR falls short in both. There are no jobs imaginable that can be better done in virtual reality, where we, humans, have to compete with code (no, not even creative jobs). Virtual reality, at least in its current form, won't bring us closer to others either.

Fun is another core element of happiness and no doubt that VR is really good at delivering fun. The problem is it comes at a high attention price. There's no rule saying "the more immersive an experience the more fun it is". The Sims is pretty immersive as a computer game, but disproportionately more people get their daily dose of fun playing Candy Crush Saga exactly because it's not immersive. Candy Crush and the like fill the gaps in your day and utilize the moments when otherwise you'd probably just do nothing and relax. VR can't be consumed in bits. Even if the technology becomes as easy to use as possible, you just can't jump in and out from a virtual world.
VR will have its place on the market. Today, the number of console gamers in the world is well north of 100 million, and they are happy to pay with their attention for a special gaming experience. VR will be huge as a gaming platform, and you might even argue that it will become "mainstream" in this sense. But it's far from taking over the world.

On the other hand, augmented reality doesn't ask for your exclusive attention, and it ticks all the boxes.

It makes you connected. No one want to hang out with a crappy avatar, even if it's Zuckerberg's virtual representation. Sure, it's interesting to try once or twice, but the majority of the people will stick to FaceTime and Skype. That is until they can finally use holograms to be (almost) physically in the same room with the people they are talking to.

It makes you competent. It provides you information (often previously inaccessible information) if you want it and when you want it. This is exactly what made the Internet, and later the smartphone indispensable.

And if you've ever played Pokemon Go you already know it's tons of fun.