Oculus-Rift-5-640x360You can’t trust surveys to bring you accurate information about everything. That point was just driven home to me by a CNN Money article about a survey by phone manufacturer Ericsson as part of its “10 Hot Consumer Trends for 2016”  (PDF) report. According to Ericsson, half the consumers it polled thought that within five years, smartphones would be obsolete and they’d be doing everything via VR headsets.

I wonder how many of them are experts in mobile tech development, or have even tried VR headsets? I wasn’t terribly impressed with the Viewmaster VR experience. Granted that it’s a rather low-resolution version of VR compared to some of the high-tech goggles various companies are working on, but even so, there didn’t seem to be any useful applications for it yet. But science fiction like Ready Player One presents VR as the next big thing, so surely we’ll have it soon!

The rest of the report does have some other interesting predictions about new media. It seems many consumers believe that sharing information online as “netizen journalists” increases their influence. “More than a third believe blowing the whistle on a corrupt company online has greater impact than going to the police.” Most smartphone users believe that hacking and viruses will continue to be a problem for mobile devices, though 1 in 5 say they would have greater trust for companies that were hacked but took care of the problem.

There are categories that talk about how consumers believe internal sensors will be used both in construction and in ourselves to update us on the well-being of our buildings and our bodies. Consumers want to be able to use their commuting time more usefully, and on the whole would like better Internet access on the commute. And the number of people who watch more than three hours of YouTube per day has nearly tripled, from 7% in 2011 to 20% in 2015.

Then there’s the section that says “Half of all smartphone users believe that social networks will be the preferred method to contact emergency services within 3 years.” Really? I didn’t have any opinion one way or the other on whether social networks would be used to contact emergency services. I never thought about it. It kind of makes me wonder to what extent this survey used leading questions. “Do you believe social networks will be the preferred method to contact emergency services within 3 years? (Y/N)” Or, more likely, “How many years do you believe it will be before social networks are the preferred method to contact emergency services? (1, 2, 3, 4, many)”

It would certainly also account for the idea that VR is going to replace smartphones within five years. If you ask a consumer if he thinks it is or isn’t, or when he thinks it is, naturally he’s going to have an opinion even if he never thought about it before. What the opinion is probably depends on how much science fiction he reads.

Even assuming VR is ready for prime-time within five years, and it sees widespread consumer adoption, and people incorporate it into their daily lives, that’s not going to mean the end of the smartphone. VR is simply not going to be useful for the same purposes as smartphones. It couldn’t be. You can talk on the smartphone while you jog in the park, walk down the street, or even drive if you’re careful to watch where you’re going. With VR, there’s no way you could watch where you’re going. So, even if people game and shop or whatever in VR, they’re going to need that smartphone for talking and texting to each other in those times when they can’t slap on a VR set and vanish from the world.

Even Palmer Luckey, founder of the Oculus VR startup, believes that VR devices “replacing” smartphones would take on the order of 15 to 20 years, not just five. And who knows? A lot can happen in twenty years. Whatever happens, I will admit I’m looking forward to finding out just how successful VR can really be. But the answer isn’t going to come from a survey.


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