How the Lack of Physical Space is Affecting the Adoption of VR in Major Cities

Living in a sprawling metropolis like London or New York can be expensive, and often cramped—any local will tell you that. It’s also fair to say that neither of these characteristics of big city living are all that helpful in the context of virtual reality (VR) adoption. So, how precisely is the lack of physical space affecting the adoption of VR in major global cities?

When discussing VR adoption in this article, I’m talking about widespread adoption and the effects of space constraints in this context. What I’m not talking about is the early adopters, those who will make space, despite the lack of it. What I’m trying to say is, I’m not talking about the nutters willing to alienate their flatmates with a living room full of sensors and cabling—nutters like myself.

If VR is to take off, it needs to find its way into the household of the casual gamer (someone unwilling to make space), not just those mad, eccentric or passionate enough to take a gamble on the technology.

Tetris-like living

Two meters by one and a half meters. This is the minimum amount of space required to set up a room-scale VR experience using the HTC Vive. It might not sound like much, but it’s harder to find than you might think.

Take my beloved London for example. According to a 2015 survey, the average floorspace of flats in the London boroughs of Walthamstow, Bexley and Croydon was a mere 57 m2. The City of London wasn’t far behind, with an average floorspace of 59 m2. This might sound like plenty of space, but once you’ve accounted for dividing these flats into bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and living rooms, and populating these spaces with necessary furniture, that all-important 2m x 1.5m becomes extremely difficult to find.

Some have described living in London as “Tetris-like living”, which is fun to visualise, but less fun to experience. The term “rabbit hutch Britain” also began to float around in 2014 when it was announced that the UK topped the rankings for the smallest properties in Europe. Not exactly an accolade to be proud of.

Apartment dwellers in global cities such as London, New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo have become masters of this “Tetris-like” lifestyle. They spend more time outside of the domestic sphere than most, utilising public spaces like parks, squares, restaurants and bars, to compensate for the lack of space at home.

By necessity, city dwellers become experts in spatial economy, making use of every inch of personal space, as well as every inch of communal space. If you’re in need of further convincing, find a video of commuters boarding a train in Tokyo—it’s a modern marvel. However, the tactics employed by savvy city dwellers can’t be applied to VR’s specific space problem. Top of the range VR sets aren’t exactly cheap, portable or weatherproof, so it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing them in our public squares and parks any time soon.

Another recent survey found that 47 per cent of UK residents said there wasn’t even enough space in their homes for the furniture they owned. It’s fair to assume that this percentage would be even higher if London was examined in isolation. Presumably, this means that more than half of all Londoners are from the get-go completely inhibited from setting up a VR play-space at home. This figure doesn’t even account for those who have no interest in technology, and those that simply don’t have the knowledge required to operate a VR set, two demographics that would drive the exclusion percentage even higher.

For VR to become widespread, its userbase needs to reach a critical mass. At this point, more money will be poured into developing high-quality applications and inexpensive set-ups, and the userbase will multiply. Whether it’s possible to achieve this critical mass with such a high percentage of city-dwellers excluded from using VR in the home is, unfortunately, perhaps doubtful.

However, there might just be a way around the lack of physical space in our global cities. If only there was some way of creating the convincing illusion of space, where in fact there is none…

The locomotion commotion

Locomotion has been an issue for as long as VR has existed. Those who’ve had the privilege of sampling the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift will be familiar with the genuinely incredible sense of immersion they induce. They’ll also, though, be familiar with the heartbreak brought about when that delicate state of immersion is shattered, as a wayward fist or leg strikes a wall (or television) that doesn’t exist in the virtual world. It’s like an unsolicited bucket of cold water tipped over the head.

Some companies have turned to technological solutions to the problem of locomotion, that might also simultaneously address the problem of space. Virtuix Omni, for instance, has gone down the Ready Player One route with its large omnidirectional treadmill. The engineering might be impressive, but the £300 GBP treadmill takes up a lot of space itself. It’s probably safe to say that if people don’t have space for their furniture, it’s unlikely they have space for a science-fiction treadmill.

Another more space efficient option is a pair of Cybershoes. This extremely stylish foot accessory, that recently enjoyed a successful Kickstarter campaign, allows the seated player to scuttle around the VR environment by skimming their feet backwards and forwards on the floor. The shoes are designed to allow for a motion not entirely dissimilar to running. Although a pair of Cybershoes isn’t quite as expensive as an omnidirectional treadmill, starting at circa £150, you’d also have to invest in an appropriate swivel chair and a means of suspending the headset cable above you as you play.

It’s safe to say that technologies allowing players to move around the virtual environment without taking up space in the real world aren’t quite there yet. If they’re to make a real impact in the adoption of VR systems, they’d have to take a considerable price drop, and achieve much higher levels of functionality.

What’s certain is that the space issue in major global cities isn’t going anywhere. Spiralling property prices and the decreasing size of new-build flats mean that more and more people are packing themselves into tighter and tighter spaces.

This is the metaphorical and literal price you pay for living in a modern metropolis, and we understand that, even if we reserve the right to complain about it. To look at rent purely in the context of the space you receive for the money you pay is to tell only half the story. Really, people are paying for the proximity of world-class music, food, theatre, and art. They’re also paying for intangibles such as atmosphere, diversity, and even history. All of this, though, is unquestionably problematic for the VR industry and all those hoping to drive widespread adoption.

Our best hope is a technological leap that will allow for the convincing simulation of physical space, where in fact there is none. The illusion of space could prove ten times more valuable and powerful than physical space itself. Who knows, in some unrecognisable future, flats might only need to be the size of a cupboard, made borderless by our unchecked access to the virtual world.

For now, I’ll settle for a bigger flat.

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