Virtual Reality vs Conversational Interfaces

The future of human computer interaction. Or, in other words, would you rather sit on your sofa or go out and do things.

2016 is the year where two opposite forms of human computer interaction are poised to capture our imagination or at least consume a lot of digital ink within the technorati (i.e. on Medium and Twitter). These emerging technologies demand that we ask ourselves what type of future do we want, simulated experiences or more meaningful experiences.

The VR wave that consumed CES promises immersion, presence, the dream of climbing everest and base jumping without actually putting in the effort to do it; wholly new forms of storytelling all from the comfort of your sofa.

VR is a world where the ‘computer’ consumes us into its digital world. It’s a big giant headset and immersive sound; it’s the reality of The Matrix and Neuromancer.

VR is a world where the ‘computer’ consumes us into its digital world. It’s a big giant headset and immersive sound; it’s the reality of The Matrix and Neuromancer.

The Conversational Interface (CI) that is sneaking up on us (thank you Chris Messina for such a great piece) promises the ability to chat with apps the same way we chat with our friends.

Open up iMessage or Whatsapp and just type, “Hey Uber, pick me up in 10 minutes” and boom your car arrives. “Hey Amazon Instant, you got any fresh parmesan? I need some for the risotto I’m making tonight” and boom your fresh parmesan arrives in an hour. Even payment disappears into the algorithmic background.

CI is a reality where the computer is invisible and is consumed by our physical reality. It’s a chatbot that acts like your friend; it’s the world of Her.

CI is a reality where the computer is invisible and is consumed by our physical reality. It’s a chatbot that acts like your friend; it’s the world of Her.

Strangely, the reality of the conversational interface is almost harder to imagine. Or at least, it’s harder to depict because life looks and feels the same and technology is just this enabler of the things we already do. There’s no science fiction to it.

Do we want technology to enable a more fluid, efficient life that allows to connect with others in more meaningful ways and spend less time on the admin side of life? Or do we want technology to simulate experiences that trick our minds into having a good time.

These two forms of interaction fundamentally require us to answer what do we want from technology. Do we want technology to enable a more fluid, efficient life that allows us to connect with others in more meaningful ways and spend less time on the admin side of life? Or do we want technology to simulate experiences that trick our minds into having a good time.

Of course, VR and CI are not mutually exclusive nor do they serve the same purpose. VR is about entertainment and exploration first, new forms of interaction, and complex long distance activities like medical exams; both will find their market.

Both technologies have a ways to go before they achieve their promise. VR is held back by the computing horsepower required to render realistic 360 environments and CI is held back by the limitations of natural language processing. Both technological hurdles will be overcome very soon resulting in VR experiences that are truly immersive and totally natural CI’s.

However, the question that we need to honestly ask ourselves is what role do we want technology to play in our lives. Personally, the more invisible the computer the better because it lets me be more connected to the real world.

However, the question that we need to honestly ask ourselves is what role do we want technology to play in our lives. Personally, the more invisible the computer the better because it lets me be more connected to the real world and therefore, more meaningful. No matter how perfect a simulation…it’s still not real.

Call me old school, but in my future I’d way rather ask my bot “Hey, where should we go snowshoeing this weekend?” than strap on a headset and sit on my sofa for a simulated snowshoe through the forest no matter how real it feels. That is, unless, they develop VR for my dog too so he can come along.

Shout out to Billy Tian Lan for helping with this piece.