VR is more popular than you think, but no thanks to Meta's virtual wasteland

Happy young woman using a virtual reality headset
(Image credit: Shutterstock / TierneyMJ)

Do you own a VR headset? I do, and that places me squarely in the minority; according to some handy stats from Zippia, only 15% of the US population uses VR. That’s still more than 50 million people, but for comparison, it’s less than half the number who own a firearm and less than a third of those who own an iPhone.

Still, 50 million is a not-insignificant sum considering the entry price for the average VR device - and those statistics come from a study conducted back in 2020, with projections placing the number closer to 70 million in 2023. Three years prior, in 2017, only 22 million people in the US described themselves as VR users.

So virtual reality is on the upswing! It’s about time, surely; VR has long been the ugly duckling of the tech sphere, never quite accessible or convincing enough to encourage the average consumer to open their wallet. But the times, they are a-changing…

For a very long time, the VR industry was relatively siloed. Use cases varied, but gaming was the predominant space. While plenty of developers have put out incredible VR games, the applications still felt limited; and why bother dropping hundreds of dollars on a headset when the PC you already have can play plenty of games that don’t require you to don a bulky pair of VR goggles and wave around some motion controllers?

Because, says Mark Zuckerberg and Meta, VR can do more. Gaming in VR is already a growing industry - thanks in part to efforts from Meta and Sony to make virtual reality more affordable through products like the Meta Quest 2, and PSVR - but Big Zuck believes there’s more that can be done.

And, though I can’t believe I’m saying this, I actually agree with him.

Enter the metaverse

See, the applications of VR are widespread and impressive. Gaming is one thing - and definitely not something we should dismiss out of hand, since the VR gaming industry was worth 7.5 billion dollars in 2021 - but imagine the possibilities! Okay, don’t imagine them; I’ll give you some examples.

In the medical field, VR is used to train surgeons and demonstrate products at expo events. When it comes to marketing, virtual reality can allow consumers to trial a product - say, a new sports car - without ever leaving the showroom. Athletes have started using VR for training purposes, like tennis or baseball players practicing their reaction speeds in a virtual environment.

The list goes on and on. Some companies on the cutting edge of implementing new technology have started using VR for team-building exercises - a potentially invaluable tool in the modern era of remote working and distance learning. Real estate agents can use a VR headset to give a potential buyer a guided tour of a property from the comfort of their existing home. There have even been experiments with ‘VR therapy’ to reduce pain in hospitalized patients.

I’ll stop banging on about how you can use virtual reality now. The point is that this tech has the potential to be integrated into our society on a widespread scale and improve our lives in the process.

The social aspect of this, as Zuckerberg evidently understands, is also vastly important. Imagine hanging out with friends in another country or state without having to travel further than your living room! Immersive social experiences in VR could make that dream a reality.

Welcoming VR into our lives - with caution

I’m not proposing some sort of Ready Player One hellscape future where our real-world society collapses because we’re all hooked up to the metaverse to live out virtual lives instead of real ones. But virtual spaces for social interaction are already around; the weird and wonderful world of VRChat is a must to explore for anyone who owns one of the best VR headsets.

I do think that we’re going to see more and more VR in the coming years, though. Analytics company Piper Sandler recently published a report surveying Gen-Z teens in the US, and we can take a lot away from the data.

29% of US teens polled owned a VR device, with 14% using it weekly. That’s almost double the national average - making it all the more baffling to me that many news outlets (including CNBC) have reported on Piper Sandler’s data claiming that VR “hasn’t caught on” among young people.

That’s ridiculous, CNBC. Almost a third of young people in the US own a VR device - that’s far higher than I would’ve initially expected. 4% of the teens surveyed use VR every single day. I found it very amusing that CNBC compared VR ownership to iPhone ownership (at 87% among those polled), even though owning a smartphone is practically mandatory for teenagers in today’s society.

It’s clear from Piper Sandler’s report that VR usage is much higher among the new generation than those who came before - and that shouldn’t be a surprise. Companies like Meta have been pushing VR for a while now, and it’s (slowly) becoming more accessible, especially with Meta’s Quest line (formerly Oculus Quest), which doesn’t require a dedicated PC or console to connect to.

Zuckerberg’s terrifying influence

There’s one teeny little problem with this, of course. Meta isn’t a company that should have a stranglehold over the future of social VR, for so many reasons I can’t list them all here; but there are two reasons I’d like to focus on.

First is the fact that Zuckerberg is not a man I would personally want helming any sort of effort to evolve the way humans interact with one another. I don’t want to make this a personal attack on the Zuckmeister, but let’s be real for a moment here: the ‘Controversies’ section of his Wikipedia page is rather lengthy, and notably also links to a whole separate Wiki article entitled ‘Criticism of Facebook’, a page with 22 dedicated subheadings.

The second reason is a lot simpler and a lot less personal: Meta’s virtual world just doesn’t look good. In fact, it looks downright miserable. For heaven’s sake, Sony’s 2008 effort to create a digital social space - the sadly deceased Playstation Home - looked better fifteen years ago! Zuckerberg’s ‘metaverse’ is a desolate, creepy place laden with advertising and promotions for scam garbage like NFTs.

So yes, I do want VR to continue expanding and become a part of our lives, but no, I don’t want Meta to have any part of it. I said earlier that I agree with Zuckerberg's ideals for integrating VR into our society - but to qualify that statement, I'll add that I don't think he should be the one to do it. Mark, I’ll make one of those dead-eyed Switch Sports-looking avatars when I’m cold in the dirt.

(And no, I don’t care if they have legs now.)

Christian Guyton
Editor, Computing

Christian is TechRadar’s UK-based Computing Editor. He came to us from Maximum PC magazine, where he fell in love with computer hardware and building PCs. He was a regular fixture amongst our freelance review team before making the jump to TechRadar, and can usually be found drooling over the latest high-end graphics card or gaming laptop before looking at his bank account balance and crying.

Christian is a keen campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights and the owner of a charming rescue dog named Lucy, having adopted her after he beat cancer in 2021. She keeps him fit and healthy through a combination of face-licking and long walks, and only occasionally barks at him to demand treats when he’s trying to work from home.