VR is a dud

John Biggs
Apr 11, 2016 · 7 min read
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The future, early

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.

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Proposed VR/AR content

Now? Not so much.

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Actual VR/AR Content

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.

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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.

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.

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I’m John Biggs. I write, speak, and make stuff. Read my books or Tweet me or try Freemit.

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