If you wait for VR to be ready, you will have waited too long.
VR has as much potential as any new technology I’ve ever seen. But that’s no guarantee it will succeed.
Virtual reality has a few things in common with tablets. Both promised to become revolutionary new computing platforms; both finally arrived after a series of false starts; and both are now struggling to find their respective places in a technologically capricious world.
Since their most recent incarnation in the form of the iPad in 2010, tablets have managed to carve out a few consumer and enterprise niches for themselves. But realistically, if every tablet on the planet suddenly disappeared Leftovers-style, the world would not fundamentally change. Similarly, if Facebook decided to shutter Oculus, and HTC and Valve divested themselves of their Vive-related businesses, and Sony never updated PlayStation VR, other than faint echoes of Amiga-like fanaticism, the result would likely be little more than a collective cultural shrug. The relative few of us who invested in headsets would ceremoniously package them up, then deposit them on closet shelves right beside our PDAs, CueCats, and Google Glasses.
But virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality (which, for the purposes of this article, I’m referring to collectively as VR) are unlike tablets in a critical way. While the role of tablets can be filled by similar technologies like plus-sized phones and compact, convertible laptops, no other practical technology exists today that can transport, captivate, and immerse users like VR. I believe VR has the potential to fundamentally and profoundly change human-computer interaction forever. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that — like the graphical user interface, the internet, social networking, and mobile computing — VR has the potential to impact the course of humanity.
Using high-end VR for the first time reminded me of a handful of other first-time moments: accessing the internet from a mobile device, taking my first digital photo, flicking through an inertial-scrolling list on an iPhone, and tracking my location on a GPS. I was both amazed by what I was experiencing at that moment, and simultaneously amazed at the thought of what I would be experiencing in five to ten years. As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And although VR is still very much in its infancy, it is as deserving of the designation of magic as any technology I’ve ever seen.
But technological marvel, novelty, and innovation does not guarantee success. I’ve already picked on Google Glass, so instead I’ll call the jury’s attention to 3D movies, Second Life, and the Segway. VR could go on to become the most important computing platform since mobile, or it could succumb to its many shortcomings and never claw its way out of the trough of disillusionment.
To be clear, lest I be labeled a VR-partisan fanboy, those shortcomings are many. They range from the obvious (too heavy, too expensive, too few pixels, time-consuming and complex setup, motion sickness, hostile to coffee consumption, etc.) to the subtle (the raccoon-eye effect for hours after use, the inevitable mussing of one’s hair, the fatigue associated with long periods of use, hygienic concerns around sharing headsets, etc.).
While some of these challenges are unique to VR, many of them are also simply the result of being an immature technology. But that doesn’t mean time will inevitably solve them. To understand how VR is going to have to address the challenges that stand between it and world domination, we first have to look backwards and understand how VR got to where it is today.
As William Gibson has said many times, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I interpret Gibson’s wisdom as an allusion to the impact of economics on technological innovation. While we think of VR as being a brand new, futuristic technology, commercially available VR headsets actually began appearing in the early nineties. Obviously, they weren’t nearly as good as they are today, but that wasn’t why they didn’t succeed. The bigger problem was the fact that there was no path toward significant improvement that would ultimately prove economically viable. In other words, it wouldn’t have violated any laws of physics to build the same VR headsets back in the nineties that are available today, but the R&D costs would have been unimaginable.
So what changed between 1991 and 2011 when people like Palmer Luckey and John Carmack began experimenting with modern VR prototypes? There were tremendous advancements in processor and display technologies, of course, but I would argue that the seminal moment for VR was the launch of the iPhone.
Apple released the original iPhone in 2007, and in doing so, not only revolutionized smartphones, but all of computing and human-computer interaction. By 2011, when Luckey and Carmack were hacking VR prototypes together, we were already on the iPhone 4S and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The components that made modern smartphones so compelling (advanced microcontrollers, high resolution displays, positional sensors, flash memory, advanced optics, etc.) were being manufactured in increasingly large quantities, and were being improved at staggering rates. That meant most of the components required to cobble together a pretty decent VR headset prototype (with the addition of some duct tape, naturally) were more or less available off-the-shelf. VR was able to leverage economies of scale ushered in by the burgeoning smartphone industry.
Fast forward to today. Facebook now owns Oculus, the Rift was released about a year ago, Valve and HTC launched the Vive shortly after the Rift, Google’s Daydream headset and platform launched late last year, and Sony has already sold far more PlayStation VR headsets than they expected. It would seem that VR has finally arrived.
But not so fast. Even the highest-end VR experiences (currently the Rift and the Vive) are what I would consider to be MVPs, or “Minimum Viable Products” as we product managers like to say. Each is capable of providing users with amazing, immersive experiences, but they’re expensive (especially when factoring in the level of computing and graphics firepower you need at the other end of that tether), heavy, uncomfortable, not remotely mobile, and they still need a lot more pixels, a lot less chromatic aberration, and a much wider field of view.
These are all issues that can be solved technically; the question is whether they can be solved economically. While innovation continues in the mobile industry, a lot of the technology that powers both VR headsets and smartphones has already started to diverge. The exceptions are Google’s Daydream platform, and to a lesser degree, Samsung’s Gear VR which are designed to keep phones and VR technology evolving in lockstep. But while the combination of the Daydream headset and a Pixel phone is surprisingly impressive, the experience isn’t even in the same league as the Rift and the Vive. That means for high-end VR experiences to simultaneously continue to improve, and to remain economically viable, the VR industry needs to start generating its own economies of scale rather than piggybacking on phones. It’s time for VR to grow up, move out of its parents’ basement, and start living its own life.
That obviously means VR headsets (and related accessories like controllers and sensors) need to sell reasonably well, but that’s only half of the equation. There isn’t a lot of technology out there anymore that exists entirely in isolation. Increasingly, hardware has become physical manifestations and expressions of extensive platforms and ecosystems. For example, in order for the Amazon Echo to be anything more than just a surprisingly good cylindrical speaker with a far field microphone array, it needs Alexa. And in order for Alexa to reach out beyond its core competencies, it needs skills provided by third parties. The more the Echo can do, the more customers it will appeal to. The more customers sprinkle Echo devices throughout their homes, the more third parties want to be part of the movement. The more customers and developers invest, the more incentive there is for Amazon to improve, diversify, and even license the hardware and software. That’s the virtuous cycle most platforms need to achieve in order to succeed.
Sometimes these positive feedback loops happen organically. Apple initially tried to stifle the iOS ecosystem in order to retain full control over the user experience, but demand was so intense that Steve Jobs had no choice but to open the platform up to developers. In the process, Apple almost accidentally created one of the fastest growing, and certainly one of the most profitable, platforms in the history of computing. But ecosystems are typically much more difficult to jumpstart, requiring a great deal of seed money, developer hardware, and other incentives to motivate content creators.
Like the Amazon Echo is more than just hardware, VR is more than just high-resolution, low-latency headsets with positional tracking. It’s a platform and an ecosystem. For VR to be successful, it needs hardware, games, apps, utilities, social experiences, and diverse communities. Like an internal combustion engine, once the ecosystem gets going, it is largely self-sustaining (provided it continues to be fueled). But getting a platform’s engine turned over and started for the first time is one of the most difficult things to do in the technology business.
That’s where VR can still go wrong. A pretty primitive but serviceable VR motor has been built, but I don’t think it’s been fully started yet. It’s being primed with hardware price drops, millions of dollars in developer funds, conferences, engineering support, and other incentives. But the positive feedback loop it needs for long-term success is not yet in motion.
Fortunately, you might be able to help. There are plenty of pundits out there who will tell you that VR isn’t quite ready for prime time — that you’re better off waiting a generation or two — and frankly, they’re not wrong. Imagine an iPhone the size of a Harry Potter paperback with a battery that only lasts an hour. That’s about where we are with VR right now. But now imagine a world where the iPhone was never given the runway it needed to take off — never got the opportunity to be miniaturized, refined, and ultimately, nearly perfected.
If you’re curious about VR, and if you have the means, I would encourage you to give it a try. While VR isn’t ready for everything yet, it does do a few things amazingly well, and will provide you, your family, and your friends with hundreds of hours of entertainment and amazement.
If you’re a content creator, make something for VR. If you’re independent, make something that is all the more compelling for its simplicity. If you command vast resources and have access to seven-figure budgets, challenge yourself and your team to build something spectacular and immersive that the world has never seen before. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see a significant return on your initial investment, but the knowledge and experience you gain will give you a tremendous advantage once VR finally becomes the computing platform I’m convinced it has the potential to be.
Free markets are democracies, and as both creators and consumers, time and money are how we cast our votes for what succeeds and what fails. It’s impossible to say right now whether VR will reach critical mass, or what the hardware and the software will look like in five to ten years. But as the computer scientist Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So let’s not wait to see where VR might go; let’s do everything we can to make sure it gets there.