Analyzing VR as a computing plaform

Each VR application depends on some combination of underlying technologies and design know-how. We can analyze these dependencies to make educated guesses about when it will be possible to bring products within each application to market.

Technological Underpinnings

  • Intent capture is the ability to reliably and fluidly understand what the user wants to accomplish in any given moment — input, in other words. Until very recently, consumer VR was sorely lacking in this area; recent advances at Valve (Lighthouse) and Oculus (Touch) should improve the situation greatly.
  • Persona capture involves sensing, encoding, and representing the relevant aspects of the user’s appearance, behavior, mood, nonverbal cues, and so on — whatever signals are needed for the application at hand. This is the least mature of the technical domains, especially when it comes to solutions accessible to the consumer.
  • Environment capture refers to the ability to sense, encode, and represent real-world environments. These technologies are maturing rapidly, with intense R&D underway at companies like Jaunt VR, NextVR, GoPro, Matterport, and more. These capabilities may become commodity in short order.
  • Environment rendering is what most people think of when they think of VR: the ability to render virtual worlds with high quality, including all of the relevant sensory modalities. Modern VR arrived when Oculus demonstrated that excellent rendering would be available in consumer-ready devices.

Design Factors

  • Usability covers all areas of UI/UX — how can users make their intentions known easily and efficiently? This is the companion problem to the technical challenges of intent capture.
  • Narrative concerns our ability to tell stories, fictional or otherwise, that are informative, engrossing, and that invoke appropriate emotions.
  • Information presentation refers to our expertise in depicting ideas, data, schematics, and other abstractions; think charts, infographics, technical drawings, and so on.


Short Term (9–18 months)

  • Games: The strongest dependency, of course, is on rendering, which is quite mature. Other dependencies are weaker, and can mostly be worked around in early generations. Narrative will suffer in the short term as the community learns how to establish and develop story lines.
  • Live events: Aside from rendering, the main dependency is on environment capture — but this is moving forward really fast! Other factors, out of scope of this article, will be crucial: content deals, distribution platforms, and so on.
  • Real Estate: This application is almost entirely gated by the ability to quickly, cheaply, and accurately capture interior environments. Matterport and others are on the case.
  • Journalism: On the one hand, effective VR journalism will require a conjunction of environment capture and narrative technique — both of which need further development. But early efforts can probably succeed even with the capabilities already on hand, and gradually grow to include the latest developments.

On the horizon (1.5–3 years)

  • Productivity: These apps live and die by their ability to elicit, capture, and respond to our intentions. Accurate and efficient input solutions are just now becoming available, and it will take some time for designers and developers to figure out how to use these tools to good effect. While this application is listed as medium term, many of the most important entries will take years to emerge and refine.
  • Communities: Getting together with other folks to talk about common interests — it’s one of the first and most enduring uses of the internet. To do this right in VR requires both decent persona capture (the main blocker) and product design, but this application should be addressable in relatively short order.
  • Cinema: Story-telling does not face major technological blockers, now that full-field cameras are rapidly becoming available. The main gating factor at this point is creative — how to tell stories in this medium. Thus the intense efforts by Oculus, Google, and many traditional studios and production houses to explore and educate.
  • Education: A bit hard to analyze, since different subjects will have quite different requirements. History and literature will share many qualities with cinema and travel, while cell biology and skills training might feel much more game-like.
  • Travel: This is almost a pure environment capture play — it’s all about making us feel like we’re there, with as much fidelity and leveraging as many sensory channels as possible.

Further out (3–5 years)

  • Business communication: The requirements here are complex, spanning high-fidelity interpersonal relations, presentation of information and ideas, and solid product design. While current conferencing solutions like GoToMeeting are terrible and impose great pain, there’s a lot that needs to come together before individuals and companies will switch.
  • Personal communication: This application is far and away the most sensitive to the nuances of persona capture, including all of the nonverbal communication channels that people use. Satisfying solutions will not emerge to displace existing communications methods until major progress is made here.
  • Expanded perception: Another application that’s tough to analyze — granting us new perspectives on the real and virtual worlds through novel presentations of data and sensory input. It will take some time for the design principles to mature, and for the most appropriate data streams to become available.

A note on the metaverse

What’s missing

  • Middleware, engines, distribution platforms, authoring tools. These behind-the-scenes pieces will also be crucial in bringing many of these applications to market. And, of course, many of them represent significant near-term opportunities in and of themselves.
  • Market sizing, monetization, business model. While I think that all of these applications represent broad markets, some are surely much bigger than others and some will have clearer paths to monetization. Needless to say, the business you’d build around real estate walkthroughs is quite different from one based on live sports streaming.
  • Consumer readiness and headset penetration. Some applications require widespread consumer adoption before they are viable, while others can get started just fine on the backs of early adopters or alternative means of providing gear.




Perception nerd. We create the future; let’s make it a good one.

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Beau Cronin

Beau Cronin

Perception nerd. We create the future; let’s make it a good one.

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