Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

There's no frothier segment of the tech industry right now than virtual reality. Every man and his virtual dog wants in on the action, and despite all the talk of industrial usage like education, medicine and tourism, most of the excitement still seems to revolve around consumer applications.

News this week of the first European IMAX virtual reality cinema highlights how Acer is taking a new approach. The ailing Taiwanese PC maker is supplying IMAX, best known for its wide-screen movie formats, with virtual reality headsets. IMAX in turn just signed a deal to install those headsets into cinemas operated by Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group. The first VR cinema will open in Manchester, England by the end of the year.

Whereas most VR headset makers are selling to individuals, Acer and its partner Starbreeze have taken a different tack by pitching to public-venue operators. Acer CEO Jason Chen outlined his approach in an interview with Bloomberg a few months ago, where he noted that the high price of VR headsets makes targeting corporations a better bet.

That's quite a turnaround for a PC firm that built its fame on the back of the consumer market, but a turnaround is exactly what Acer needs.

Back in May, I discussed how Acer's decision to work with Swedish games maker Starbreeze could be either brilliance or folly. With the consumer VR bubble continuing to inflate, I'm becoming more convinced that Acer's decision to zig where others have zagged is, if not brilliant, then at least quite savvy.

Few others seem to be chasing public entertainment such as theme parks and cinemas, which gives Acer a first-mover advantage. Even if competitors try to tap that business, and they will, corporations are far less fickle than consumers and will likely stick with a name they know and trust.

Film Star
After a few slow years, IMAX posted strong revenue growth in 2015
Source: Bloomberg

It's not bullet proof, but assuming Acer and Starbreeze can execute successfully there's no reason to believe companies like IMAX or Odeon would rip out all their Acer VR headsets simply to install another from a rival. As those operators expand their VR offerings to extract more revenue per seat, there's every reason to believe Acer will be able to ride on their coattails.

There are risks, however, and many of those are outside Acer's control. Chiefly, there's no guarantee cinema operators will want to shell out the capital required to refit a theater just to extract a few more dollars, especially given data show gross ticket sales are on track for a second annual increase.

Great Show
Gross box office ticket sales are up, challenging the case for investment in virtual reality cinema
Source: Box Office Mojo
Note: Data is for each year through Oct. 10.

Then there's the problem of content. It's possible that film makers may find the cost-benefit analysis doesn't justify producing VR movies, and so the flow of new releases may slow to a trickle after some early excitement. There's also a chance consumers may get bored and go back to traditional 2D cinema, as we've already seen with 3D movies.

Both scenarios would bode poorly for Acer's hopes of a future in VR. Yet, given the company hasn't posted annual sales growth since Toy Story 3 topped the box office, trying something new makes more sense than following the crowd.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net