A fish floats by my head while I stand on the prow of a sunken ship. A whale approaches from above, silhouetted briefly by the sun shining through the water. It floats towards me, its baleful eye as big as a train headlight taking in my aspect. My breathing apparatus makes bubbles that I can pop with my fingers while this strange aquatic world beckons me to explore the briny deep. I’m enchanted.
When I first tried the HTC Vive a year ago I was convinced a new world awaited us. We would be strapping massive VR rigs to our faces and we’d interact with games the way we were supposed to in sci-fi movies. We would suit up and enter a virtual world of our own design. We’d swing our hands around like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, bringing up information like mad wizards. I was convinced that HTC (and Sony and Oculus and Magic Leap) were showing us the future.
Now? Not so much.
But VR investment is smoking hot! And there are so many amazing rigs coming soon! If it weren’t amazing, why is it top of mind? Why did Scoble go work for a VR studio?
Here is what I think is happening: the denizens of the Valley are tired of looking at their phones. I’ve seen so many examples of anti-social behavior in SF and Palo Alto that it’s abundantly clear that even the phone tappers are sick of their own shit.
The original solution to this? AR displays like Glass that allow you to swipe your Instagram feed while looking up at your dining companion. Now, after Glass failed, the nerderati are looking for the next better thing. I am completely serious about this: the primary reason so much money and time is being plowed into VR is so people don’t trip over fire hydrants while walking down Mission engrossed in Twitter.
So we come to the second coming of VR, the first happening during the transhumanist era of Lawnmower Man and Mondo 2000, a brief period between the rise of the gaming console and the introduction of the first cheap, powerful home computers where thinkers imagined a virtual space separate from our dirty meatspace. While the first coming was defined as wishful thinking, the second coming reaches us just as computing power is hitting redline and the potential for amazing VR experiences is well within our grasp. Therein lies the rub.
“You ever think maybe it gets on my nerves, you coming on like people I know?’ He stood, swatting pale dust from the front of his black jeans. He turned, glaring back at the dusty shop windows, the closed door to the street. “What’s out there? New York? Or does it just stop?”
“Well,” said the Finn, “it’s like that tree, you know? Falls in the woods but maybe there’s nobody to hear it.” He showed Case his huge front teeth, and puffed his cigarette. “You can go for a walk, you wanna. It’s all there. Or anyway all the parts of it you ever saw. This is memory, right? I tap you, sort it out, and feed it back in.”
“I don’t have this good a memory,” Case said, looking around. He looked down at his hands, turning them over. He tried to remember what the lines on his palms were like, but couldn’t.
“Everybody does,” the Finn said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out under his heel, “but not many of you can access it. Artists can, mostly, if they’re any good. If you could lay this construct over the reality, the Finn’s place in lower Manhattan, you’d see a difference, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Memory’s holographic, for you.” The Finn tugged at one of his small ears. “I’m different.”
“How do you mean, holographic?” The word made him think of Riviera.
“The holographic paradigm is the closest thing you’ve worked out to a representation of human memory, is all. But you’ve never done anything about it. People, I mean.” The Finn stepped forwards and canted his streamlined skull to peer up at Case. — William Gibson, Neuromancer
I’m as excited as you are to live in cyberspace. I want to hack the Gibson while staring at variegated planes of light representing the databases of massive international corporations, the spiral arms of military systems far and forever out of reach. I want to exist inside the machine, if even for a few dozen hours a day.
But the stuff you’re seeing now won’t be commercially viable for at least 10 years and we won’t commonly enter into virtual worlds for another decade after that. The optics, the graphics engine, and the hardware just isn’t there right now. Gaming notwithstanding, the media markets won’t move towards VR until they absolutely have to. The visual, two-dimensional medium of TV and film are still the easiest and cheapest way to sell a story or share your vision with the world. There’s a reason the cable companies still exist: people are too lazy to hunt and kill their own content and, more important, the passive medium of television allows for maximum consumption with a minimum of effort.
Here is my breakdown of the failings of VR.
- Content. Search for a little VR content to justify spending a few thousand on a VR rig. What will you find? Nil. Bupkus. Zero. Look, you and your buddy strapped five GoPros together and went skiing. That’s great. But until 360-degree cameras are as commonplace digital SLRs video content will remain static. James Cameron can film a VR version of Avatar 2 but, quite literally, it just got cheap enough for an indie filmaker to add bokeh to their work let alone render true sci-fi effects. Even porn is struggling to figure out how to sell VR and if anyone could sell an immersive system that puts you inside the action it’s the skin industry. Further, if you think Microsoft or Sony will abandon the lucrative TV gaming market for some unsure thing you’re bonkers. They’ll be pumping out TV-based content for years even as they pay lip service to VR.
- Hardware. The hardware necessary to create an immersive 3D experience is expensive, clunky, and difficult to run. Further, it requires space. You can sell a few thousand VR rigs to folks in big houses but what about the folks in studio apartments? Are you supposed to bump into your dresser while fighting off aliens? “AR,” you say. “That’s the ticket!” AR, or augmented reality, still requires massive computing power to overlay dragons or airplane repair instructions over the real world. Displaying a shop manual in a pair of AR goggles is one thing but offering a 3D rendering of a jet engine is another.
- Kids. We are about to enter a decade of electronics backlash. Just as TV was vilified by parents in the 1990s I suspect iPads and other devices will be vilified in the 2020s. Parents are watching their kids be swallowed up by mobile devices and the resulting pushback will probably stymie device sales for a solid decade. The result? The parents who hate “the iPad” will really hate VR. Kids drive entertainment hardware sales. I assure you there is no parent in the world right now who will allow their little ones to fall as deeply into a virtual world — especially if it requires a massive headset and expensive PC — as they have let them fall into Toca Boca and Clash Of Clans.
- The Future. The future I foresee for VR is direct brain interaction. As it stands, visual VR rigs are interstitial technologies. If we are going truly become one with our machines the input won’t be mediated by the optic nerve. Instead, I expect something akin to “jacking in” will truly cause VR to take off. What this looks like in practice is still unclear but we’re getting closer. Current investment in VR is great as it will build an proto-industry for future growth but in the near term the VR bubble will pop and all of our Oculii will collect dust. This won’t stop 2017 from being the “YEAR OF VR” at CES in January nor will it stop folks from spending good money on garbage for a few more years. But the good times will end until the better times come.
I don’t want to break up the virtual party. If we want to look like doofuses while pretending to sneak into a booby-trapped dungeon in our special VR room then lets do it. But don’t expect VR to make you much money right now nor should you expect any one device to win this round of interest. What we are seeing are the first inklings of a post-2D world and, given the speed with which technology is catching up with sci-fi, I can imagine the first brain-machine interface arriving by 2030. Remember: to be truly ubiquitous a technology has to ruin our lives. The cellphone didn’t become ubiquitous until everyone around you saw the need to own a glowing slab of black metal. The Internet didn’t take off until everyone around you saw the need to play Farmville until they died. The television didn’t take off until everyone in the world realized it was infinitely better than reading. As it stands VR won’t ruin our lives. Instead it will just mildly amuse us until something better comes along.