Is VR ready for your retired in-laws?

A devoted son-in-law talks about why his mother-in-law and other retirees deserve a great VR experience, and what VR needs to do to meet their needs.

My mother-in-law has been asking for over a year now, "What about VR? Can I use it?" My answer has been the "no" of a kindly and caring son-in-law.

Don't get me wrong. I love the fact that my mother-in-law is interested in VR. I also love why my mother in law is interested in VR. Ironically, she is a position to see its true potential. All too often, when we read about VR's present and future promise, we see stock images of millennials or Gen Zs sporting fulsomely radiant smiles beneath generic-looking headsets, and, ostensibly, they're gaming.

Does my mother-in-law want to play VR games? She may (and that's awesome), but her interests certainly won’t be confined to gaming. She wants to see far away places she hasn't gone, or interplanetary regions that perhaps her great-grandchildren will be able to go, or historical places that frankly no one can see IRL. My retired mother-in-law has stockpiled a lifetime of curiosity about the world and life itself, and now she has the time to explore it—VR can help. No matter how limited her mobility or opportunity to venture "out there" may become, she could be a headset away from virtually anything. And that's amazing.

To a large extent, retiring Baby Boomers aren’t top-of-mind for marketers where emerging tech and innovative experiences are concerned. In terms of travel alone, 45% of VR-Aware Baby Boomers want to see more travel applications in VR technology. Anecdotally, older generations never cease to surprise me with their genuine, open-minded curiosity about new tech, especially VR. They quickly see what the benefits can be (even while marketers hem and haw about adoption and other barriers).

But, "barriers" are exactly what I want to talk about—with a twist.

For the rest of this article, I want to shift the discussion from one of generic "market penetration" and "adoption rates," to one that better serves this enthusiastic segment of the population. I say, with the utmost affection, that it's time to start considering the Mother-In-Law Test, or H.E.L.P.

Is a given VR device and platform…

Hard to use?

Easy to maintain?

Likely to last?

Premium in its content and experiences?

If the H.E.L.P test is not passed (with a no, yes, yes, yes), then I'll be getting a text or phone call asking for, well, help. And while I'm happy to help, needing help is anathema to the Independence and Self-Reliance that many people like my mother-in-law want to feel while they're exploring new frontiers. And they've earned that.

So, while I continue to dissuade my mother-in-law with kindly and caring "no's" in an effort to stave off her inevitable foray into Virtual Reality, I would love to say yes. And the very first device/platforms to pass the help test will very likely find its way into a nicely wrapped package for a gift-giving holiday.

1. H... Is it Hard to Use?

When recommending a new piece of technology to family, one big question is, "how hard is this to set up?"

There are some low-quality devices to strap your smartphone into, which tend to wiggle around and can cause issues with immersion. At the high end there are devices that require a standalone gaming PC, which is expensive, and also has wires to trip over. They often have sensors you need to place in the room as well. Not a great option.

So what about "purpose-driven devices?" Purpose-driven devices are built from the ground up, without the usual compromises, to immerse a person in VR. While some are better than others, especially those that have implemented inside-out tracking, the UI and UX for VR is actually focused on VR. That's the magic my mother-in-law is looking for.

2. E... Is it Easy to Maintain?

The cardboard options and other smartphone-in-visor options are super easy to maintain. As long as you don't throw it out, you can keep on using it. It's their saving grace. The state of the art (at the moment) is quite naturally the opposite: complex gaming rigs with attached devices that require the management of a Windows machine with hardware that has glitchy drivers and needs to update often. Nope.

Purpose-driven devices? Once again—the goldilocks zone. Updates come regularly, but they're easy to do. No wires involved ( other than recharging). There's always a learning curve with any device, but that curve will level out with a minimum of bumps where purpose-driven devices are concerned. That's what we're looking for.

3. L... is it Likely to Last

The upgrade cycle around VR devices is likely to be slower than phones because content is king on these devices. We've hit the threshold where future technical improvements will be good, but incremental. The biggest threat to durability is likely the peanut-butter-and-jelly-stained hands of grandkid #2 who keeps pulling at grandma's face while she's exploring the shores of Crete.

One important thing to note: as a material, cardboard doesn't last. Purpose-driven devices are not just better experiences, they're also better constructed on the whole.

4. P... Does it have Premium Content and Experiences?

The best device in the world is useless without content. You either have it or you don’t—and all the content in the world doesn't do you much good if the experience itself isn't of a high-enough quality.

The currently available content is quite good, and it is getting better all the time. From passive 360 videos of far-flung places that a retiree may never get to visit in person, to streaming sports games, and even casual gaming—enough content exists that my mother-in-law won't get bored when the grandkids aren't around.

So there you have it. Some simple guidelines to gauge how ready VR really is for one of its biggest potential growth markets. Luckily I have another 11 months before the next Mother’s Day to make a decision, so if you work for a company with a name like, oh, I don't know, maybe Oculus or HTC or Playstation or some-such, then please help me out and get crackin'.

Ricky Bacon is group creative director at Critical Mass.

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