Explaining virtual reality to people is hard. You can talk about how you're put inside the game, you can bring up corny science fiction movies or you can describe specific experiences you can have with the current technology — telling people they can visit Mars is always a good one — but most people either don't grasp it or think you're exaggerating what's possible.
"That's the number one challenge, people ask us what's the number one challenge for Project Morpheus? I say get people to try it. Unless you try it, you don't understand how good or how great it is," Sony's Shuhei Yoshida told Polygon during a previous interview. There is a gulf between the explanations of virtual reality and the act of using it yourself.
One of the few places this gulf doesn't exist is in the act of watching movies. You may have never been on another planet, but you know what it's like to sit in a movie theater and become engrossed in a film. That's why the killer application for virtual reality may not be a game at all, but a great native Netflix app.
For virtual reality to become a mainstream technology we have to stop thinking about the hardware as a way to play games and begin to think of it as a home appliance. It has to be a piece of equipment we're comfortable using daily, and will want to use daily. Our television is one example of daily technology we use without thinking, and so is our laptop.
Netflix is a service that most people know well, and it's likely if you're reading this you have a subscription to the streaming service. Netflix is also constantly updating its catalog with shows like House of Cards and Daredevil, not to mention back-catalog and some current television shows, so there's always a reason to come back.
A native Netflix application is a huge opportunity for whoever gets it right first
Netflix in virtual reality can blend two experiences we know and understand very well; the act of watching streaming content and the act of being inside a movie theater. The theater model of watching content in virtual reality is already established; there is a built-in application that comes with the Gear VR that allows you to use your own video files to watch in your own private movie theater, but only some codecs are supported and there are no streaming options from a service to which you've already subscribed.
Which is why a truly great native Netflix application is such an opportunity for whoever gets it right first. It's a service people likely already used, delivered in a way that's superior to their current use. Why watch television on a standard display when you can enjoy it in your own private movie theater? The inability to share the experience is one reason, but isolation and the ability to be by yourself is also a selling point.
So you're giving people an experience they know they like, watching movies in a nice, comfortable theater, using a service they likely already have, and the resulting act of watching movies in virtual reality is low impact.
You don't have to worry about motion sickness or tricky interactions. It's the perfect way to sell someone on, and get them hooked up to, virtual reality. Not to mention there is a reason to return; when a new show comes out you can grab a drink and gorge in virtual reality, cut off from the world and feeling like you can relax in your own private theater.
You're moving the user away from one appliance, the television or laptop, and into another, the virtual reality headset. Once they're comfortable in the use and interactions of virtual reality they're more likely to move over to more intense experiences.
There will be other things that draw people to virtual reality, but the path to the mainstream? It may be traveled by whoever gets the best, or first, native Netflix app.