Reality check: Unearthing the classism responsible for virtual reality’s failure

Is there a link between classism and access to virtual reality?

In a world where adorning a futuristic headset can transport you to places wilder than your deepest fantasies, VR sounds nothing short of science fiction. 

From cinema to Metaverse, we’ve seen the emergence of virtual reality (VR) in a multifaceted perspective, as well as its constant evolution. But in a world increasingly dominated by AI, why has virtual reality not garnered similar attention?

In childhood, virtual reality was potentially perceived as something to do with video games or the newest Marvel movie – a brief spurt of discussion that may have quickly died down due to motion sickness. However, in recent years with the desperate development of Meta or the upcoming Apple Vision Pro headset, it leaves the question begged to be answered: who is this really for? Virtual reality is currently a tool crafted for an enriching experience, but only if you can afford it.

Currently, with headsets advertised up to $3,500 (around €3,240), the top-of-the-line hardware comprised of high-definition resolution displays, motion sensors, and efficient, powerful processing systems all lead to an increased production cost. Additionally, many VR technologies require extreme costs during development of specific softwares or programs that are passed on to the responsibility of the consumer.

The only possible success for artificial reality as we know it is for people or businesses with deep pockets. Otherwise, the augmented reality (AR) available to the general public is shoddy at best – a highly superficial experience characterised by low-quality graphics and limited immersion. When watching a 3D movie, for example, the slightest sound of chewing popcorn or movement of other attendees will remind the viewer that they are not truly experiencing the reality they’re a part of, while dually providing a mediocre – and sometimes even nauseating – visual experience. The VR that is marketed is over-saturated and uninspired. For virtual reality to properly have a place in daily life, there has to be some sort of balance between practical use that tech companies are striving for, as well as cost-efficiency to perpetuate increased accessibility of the product.

“Virtual reality could reach the level of popularity of AI programs such as ChatGPT if it were free or low-cost”

Virtual reality could reach the level of popularity of AI programs such as ChatGPT if it were free or low-cost. A huge portion of the rise of AI demand is the fact that it can be an asset to individuals seeking a greater understanding of information, regardless of income or circumstance. AR could provide a similar resource if financially viable. For example, especially in lower-income communities, quality VR can provide immersive educational experiences, such as visiting historical sites or engaging in hands-on simulations that aid the subject matter. Improving access to this technology could significantly bridge the growing wealth gap by increased content availability that affluent communities already have access to. Otherwise, the use of this technology is restricted to individuals that may already be equipped with the ability to travel or simulate these educational or cultural experiences, furthering the experiential gap and class disparities between different economic groups.

The goal of broadened access to virtual reality is not an unachievable one. As aforementioned, the cost of program production or manufacturing is currently being put onto the cost of the consumer. Often-times, companies are profit-hungry, not taking into account the audience they need to have a mutualistic relationship with. Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook-turned-Metaverse is the perfect example of this socio-economic pitfall. A tech-savvy dream of technological fusion, Meta in theory sounds like the perfect idea. 

However, in practice with charging exorbitant prices to consumers to see this idea through, it was clear the board that approved this idea had no conceptualisation of who they were marketing towards. If wealthy companies absorbed some of this cost and focused more on advancing the market of VR presently rather than filling their pockets even further, they could see potential demand for it in the future.

Virtual reality’s modern failure is one of countless examples of the intersection between tech and class. Like any new technological advancement, there must be a trial period where the idea becomes commonplace in modern society. Without businesses fronting some of the cost of development, virtual reality will never take off due to its unaffordable and unfamiliar nature, and will continue to perpetuate the wealth divide.