​Are head-mounted displays really going to sell in 2021?

Gartner says there will be more than 67 head-mounted displays (HMDs) sold in 2021. A safer bet is that head-mounted displays will be as cringe-worthy as the mullet or fanny pack.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor
(Image: Sarah Tew/CNET)

If Gartner projections are correct, we'll be purchasing more head-mounted displays in 2021, but a lot needs to happen between now and then to make that prognostication a reality.

Gartner outlined its wearable device forecast and there weren't a lot of surprises. Smartwatches will be popular, but Bluetooth headsets will move the most units today and into the future.

What jumped out at me was the head-mounted display predictions from Gartner. Head-mounted displays (HMDs) will move 22 million units in 2017 and 67 million in 2021. These head-mounted displays are typically used for augmented reality (think Microsoft HoloLens) or virtual reality (think HTC Vive, Oculus Rift).

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(Image: Gartner)

Gartner noted that the 67-million-unit guess doesn't represent mainstream adoption:

Near-term opportunities for virtual reality HMDs among consumers are with video game players. Workers will also use them for tasks such as equipment repair, inspections and maintenance, but also in warehouses and manufacturing, training, design, customer interactions and more. Theme parks, theaters, museums and sports venues will purchase HMDs to enhance the customers' experience in interactive attractions or movies, and add information and supplemental images at sporting events.

Now, Gartner was quick to add that HMDs have long-term potential.

Maybe. The jury is out on HMDs. I see people wearing HMDs today, fast forward 20 years, and equate the images to:

  • That cool mullet you had in the 80s.
  • That first cell phone that was the size of pickup truck.
  • Hawaiian shirt Friday.
  • Skinny jeans worn in any decade.
  • MC Hammer pants.
  • Fanny packs.
  • Big hair, Members Only jackets and pagers.

A few points to ponder:

  • In the enterprise, HMDs will probably fare well. Why? Workers don't have a choice. Employees will have to wear them for certain tasks and companies will save money on training, remote maintenance, and other functions (notably travel). The key point in the enterprise is that a company can add HMDs to job descriptions fashion, headset weight, and inconvenience be damned.
  • HMDs are heavy, clunky, and beyond gaming don't have much of a function today. Will that reality change in the future? Somewhat, but not let's get crazy.
  • People don't like wearing bulky items on their head. Aside from neck issues, it's a hard sell to get me to wear a helmet for much of anything. Headsets today look and feel ridiculous. Sure, you can shrink them down to the point where HMDs are like wearing glasses. But glasses suck, too.
  • Pricing is a big issue. Yes, HTC cut the price of the Vive. Yes, Facebook's Oculus has a sale and when that end will still be cheaper than the Vive. Sony's PlayStation VR is popular, but will still run you $399. Toss in HMDs from Samsung and others and you can get the price lower, but here's the question: If I gave you an HMD for free would you use it once the novelty wore off? Probably not. If free isn't a good price point you really should wonder about the HMD form factor.

Add it up and it's hard to see Gartner's HMD prediction playing out without a new form factor or some great killer app in the next four years. We've tried the Google Glass thing and it'll only work in the enterprise where there's a captive audience.

A far better bet is that people wearing HMDs today will look back at pictures and cringe.


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