Virtual Reality: still not quite there, again.

1990’s virtual reality. Not sure if this is exactly the one I used, but quite similar.
Oculus VR Kickstarter, 2012. Cool visuals and Serious star power.
An admittedly-hard-to-see panorama of my humble room, everything cleaned out & ready for VR.

“Pretty cool.”

This is the phrase I would come to hear over and over again, as I demoed my Vive to my friends. I tried to AB test many aspects of my presentation: the games that I launched, their order, how I described VR or its possibilities, but nothing changed this reaction too much. My friends would put it on, try out some of the games and then, quite content, hand it back to me. They’d insist it was “cool”, some were even “blown away”, but it was clear they also weren’t too eager to get back. I later discovered that out of ~few hundred friends (most of them science/tech) I only had a single friend who actually bought a VR system like I did (and I almost bought TWO!, nearly squandering all the savings I could afford with my sorry PhD “salary”). It seemed that none of my friends were too excited (beyond the pretty cool first experience) and, somehow, neither was I.

Friends trying out VR. Left: Tilt Brush. Middle: Holopoint. Right: Dodging something.

The features of doing VR wrong.

Overpriced tech demos. The first issue I noticed immediately is that VR games are expensive (e.g. up to $59.99), but as a friend of mine described it, many of them are “not too deep”. They are the $0.99 games for your phone, except on your face, and for $29.99. I think I ended up spending several hundred dollars buying games for a total of maybe 10 hours of game time. There are many other games that are obviously lazily ported over from PC, in many cases resulting in terrible user experiences. Some of the games were so overpriced and under-cooked (with game-breaking bugs) that I ended up spending the time to file Steam complaints to get money back. Luckily, Steam is quite fast with this and promptly reimbursed the games. A VR consumer has to be careful out there.

An example of a way over-priced arcade shooter in space that 90% of people will play for <10 minutes.

The features of doing VR properly

I found that it’s not too difficult to create an experience that a person would describe as “pretty cool”. Even the number of people who have their “mind blown” is by itself irrelevant to the success of the platform. What is difficult is making one that a person wants to come back to. Only a few games have achieved this for me so far. They fall into three categories:

In AudioShield you have to defend yourself from musical notes that are flying at you. Can’t help not dancing while at it.
TiltBrush allows you to paint in 3D. Many brushes have dynamic effects. You can link effects to music.
Random people partying together in Rec Room.

What is VR for?

If you look at the experiences built for VR today, you’ll notice that most of them are (usually single-player) games. For example I looked at 100 “new releases” for VR today and 100% of them are games. This might be because games are easier or faster to build.

VR is for games as much as Personal Computers are for games, spreadsheets, or searching cooking recipes.

It is notoriously difficult to predict future uses of novel technologies. In 1980’s Personal Computer software involved games and personal finance applications. Amusingly, today all of the action is in a single binary application (the browser), but we can look at some of the 20 most popular websites and see that they cluster around some basic human wants:

Information: “I want to know something”
Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Stack Overflow
Social/Communication: “I want to talk to someone”
Google (gmail), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
Entertainment: “I want to be amused”
YouTube, Reddit
Information: “I want to know something”
Google Maps/Search
Social/Communication: “I want to talk to someone”
Facebook, Messenger, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, Gmail, Instagram
Entertainment: “I want to be amused”
YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music
A mixed physical/digital selfie from Zuck’s demo that hurts your brain when you really think about what’s happening here.

Where does all of this put us?

So what does the future of VR look like? In terms of the well-known and often-referenced hype curve, one might argue that VR is finally in the stage of slowly climbing, after its peak of expectations around the 90s. However, I think a more nuanced view is that some technologies (especially those that are 1) easy to predict and 2) potentially very impactful) can in fact undergo multiple cycles whenever something exciting happens in the space. No one wants to miss the possibly few hundred $B wave that is coming at some point. I think it is likely that we are in such a situation now (right):

I don’t know, I can’t quite see it.
  • Would have the features above (1. offers functionality that isn’t already “good enough” on an existing technology (especially a mobile phone), in this case e.g. body/face tracking and interactions, 2. allows users to create and share, and 3. is social first).
  • It will be free. It will not be $59.99. You’ll pay in other ways of course, either by paying $9.99 for a silly hat, or with your privacy.
  • It will cater to basic human needs we see coming up over and over again across time: “I want to know something”, “I want to talk to someone” and “I want to be amused”. It will not be any specific game.



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