As more and more excited, breathless news comes out of this iteration of the virtual reality push, it’s hard for me not to feel like this all isn’t really familiar. It seems like I’ve heard the same promises, the same giddy excitement, and the same “this is going to change everything” sentiments that existed the last (few) time(s) this circle has come around. Back then, Virtual Reality was a great big helmet you wore with screens for your eyes, and you looked around and waved your arms to interact with an immersive 3D… wait.
Frankly, I have yet to hear what’s different this time. What’s the magic sauce that’s going to get millions of customers to buy a giant headset for a lot of money when they weren’t willing to do it the last time? I keep hearing the promises— movies rendered in glorious 360-degree panorama, games so immersive you’ll swear you aren’t in your living room with a big helmet on, life-changing experiences that you could never have in reality, but in VR it’s like you’re there. I don’t doubt that any of these things could happen, but they’re the amazing things you get on a mature platform. The best games of a console generation are rarely the release titles– it takes a while for developers to get comfortable with the hardware and really spend time investing in it.
To get those really awesome, mature-interface applications, you need a product with a userbase worth investing in. You need a spark that drives people to absolutely need that VR helmet. I feel like game consoles are a good analogue– consoles watch for exclusives because they all want that one killer app that makes everyone absolutely need to buy it. Even late in a console’s lifecycle, those apps are sought out, because they’ll sell consoles and grow that ever-critical userbase. Almost every major console release has a significant uptick corresponding to a massive, blockbuster release, that game everyone just has to have that drives not just game sales, but console sales as well.
There’s likely a business/marketing term for this kind of product that I don’t know; I know the term as “killer app”, because that’s what I’ve seen on the consumer side. These killer apps have a lot of things in common– they’re big, with very wide appeal, and very sticky. For consoles, they’re games that people play for hundreds of hours, sometimes they’re the only game people own on their console and STILL play it every night. They’re that experience you just can’t get anywhere else.
Why did smartphones take off when 3D TVs didn’t? 3D TVs are/were the new hotness in living room entertainment– buy this fancy TV and wear goggles while you watch to have an unparalleled moviegoing experience. Problem is, you can have an experience about as good without the need for (multiple pairs of) goggles that you have to wear in your own home every time you want to watch a movie. The addition of 3D is not compelling enough to sell millions of TVs, despite the marketing push. Smartphones, however, gave us something we didn’t realize we wanted but quickly couldn’t live without: easy Internet at our fingertips at all times. The killer app for smartphones wasn’t programmable alarms, or fancy touchscreens, or the camera, or the built-in camera or notepad apps. Those things are nice, but being able to easily check e-mail and browse the web and get GPS directions got us hooked. The more elaborate apps came later, once smartphones became ubiquitous. Arguably, these things weren’t even new, they were just presented in a user-friendly way when before they were obtuse, expensive, and unfun to use.
So. What is it that VR is bringing to the table, at launch, that’s going to move millions of units and build up a userbase big enough to make investing in cool 3D movies, immersive VR games, and promising virtual classrooms all worth it? I still don’t know. The latest thing I’ve seen touted as “the reason to get VR” is an astronaut sim– float around in space and be an astronaut. It’s got the same problems as all of the other launch VR apps; it’s a cool experience for about ten or twenty minutes and then you’re done, telling your friend who showed you the app that it was really immersive and thanks for showing that to me, that was awesome and then you go home, and, importantly, DON’T instantly go out to your local electronics store to buy one for yourself.
As an aside, I think Augmented Reality (AR) is much more likely to catch on, because the instant applications are much more obvious. Get a decent HUD on a pair of glasses, get a set of haptic-feedback gloves (or even just fingertip sensors), and plug both into your laptop. Now you have a computing space that doesn’t require a massive desk and multiple monitors, yet gives you more (virtualized) screen real estate than even the most elaborate monitor setup. You can get as much work done on the bus as you can in your office, and you don’t need a huge, bulky PC or even a table to set down your laptop. It doesn’t require terribly much in the way of technological breakthroughs, and you don’t need a screaming fast laptop to get the full benefit. That’s the hook, and once you get enough users sold by that (relatively-easy-to-deliver) promise, then you can start looking at the really exciting AR apps.
In the meantime, however, I still don’t know what problem VR is solving, or what app is going to suddenly make masses of people decide that this time, they do in fact want to wear a big headset. It’s a massive hurdle for VR to get over– we’ve proven time and again that people just don’t want to wear a massive thing on their heads for casual entertainment. Even 3D glasses for the TV was too much. I’d love to see VR become a thing, it’s been the promise of the future since I was a kid, but I still can’t tell you what would get me to plunk down a few hundred for an Oculus Rift or similar, and I like that hardware.
I’d like to be proven wrong, but I’m still waiting to see how it might happen.