Hackernoon logoThe Big Question for VR by@jordanharper

The Big Question for VR

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Jordan Harper

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Can VR find a compelling customer need to fill, or is it a flash-in-the-pan, fanned to keep tech journalists in mimosas?

Source: Oculus Rift

Reading John Brandon’s excellent ‘4 Important Lessons You Can Learn Now That 3-D Printing Is Dying’ last night got me thinking once again about our old friend, Virtual Reality.

If we ignore a brief dalliance with the technology 30 years ago, we’ve been climbing VR’s peak of inflated expectations for about 4 years. In August 2012, the Oculus Rift reached its funding goal on Kickstarter and it still hasn’t actually shipped despite — or perhaps as a result of — being subsequently acquired by Facebook for close to $2 billion.

In the wake of Oculus, a slew of new devices have appeared on the market, from Samsung’s Gear VR to the HTC Vive and Google’s build-your-own Cardboard viewer – and each of them bring the promise that VR is absolutely going to be The Next Big Thing.

Google Trends graph, showing search interest in various VR viewers over the last 4 years

Questions to ask ourselves

In Brandon’s article, he discusses four lessons that anyone following a new trend should learn; so let’s look at these in the context of VR.

  1. Make sure you try it yourself
  2. Ask hard questions
  3. Talk to outsiders
  4. Do the math

1. Make sure you try it yourself

If you’ve actually pulled on a VR headset yourself and noodled around in a virtual world, then I suspect you’ll agree with me that it’s extremely impressive. It’s immersive, believable, almost real; my first experience with a Rift developer kit in 2013 completely blew me away.

In this way, VR is very different to 3D printing — which can be a long and tedious slog, after which you end up with something you could have bought cheaper on eBay.

2. Ask hard questions

  • Why do I need to be tethered to my PC?
  • Do I have to place all of those sensors around the room?
  • What if I don’t have the latest Samsung phone?
  • Is my computer powerful enough?
  • Do I look stupid?

The answer to all of these questions do not currently bode well.

Being tethered to a PC is not something that a majority of users will enjoy; placing sensors around the room is tedious and impractical; Samsung may be the dominant smartphone manufacturer on the planet, but with a 24.5% market share, that’s still a lot of people who are unlikely to buy a handset just to enjoy the VR accessory; and computing is getting more mobile, with the first thing to get sacrificed being graphics power.

The final question ‘do I look stupid?’ may sound frivolous, but in an age where gaming in particular is becoming a spectator sport, it may be more important than you think.

Of course, the technology is embryonic now, we’re seeing the first generation of devices (almost) coming to market, but to make it out of that trough of disillusionment, it’s going to need some big changes to avoid it lasting another 30 years.

3. Talk to outsiders

Do people who aren’t early adopters or work in tech/gaming care about VR?

Nope.

4. Do the math

The Big Question for VR right now is: is it worth it? It’s definitely cool, it’s occasionally fun, but is it sufficiently cooler than regular video games or content formats that it’s worth spending hundreds of extra dollars/pounds on?

Take 3D movies or televisions: are consumers willing to pay a tiny bit more for 3D movie screenings or 3D TV channels? Sky scrapped its 3D TV channel a year ago in June 2015, none of Samsung’s 2016 TV line-up supports 3D and demand for 3D movies in cinemas is waning fast.

Why is 3D on its death bed? Because it doesn’t offer anything sufficiently more engaging or interesting than 2D when it comes to movie making. The best — or even the worst — of Hitchcock, Kubrick and Coppola would not be able improved by 3D. Pixar’s Up was not more moving or wonderful when presented in its ill-advised 3D format.

3D is impressive when done properly, it has the wow factor; not on the same level as VR, but comparable, it’s just that — as J.J. Abrams said at SXSW 2016 — innovation is nothing without the human element; and neither 3D nor VR currently make stories more human, they don’t add depth or character. If anything, they distract from it.

It’s often said that gaming will be the vanguard for VR, and while this is likely true, I fear it will crash with the same anaemic fizz as 3D.

While occasionally made more immersive, gaming is not likely to be greatly improved by being broadcast in VR — the user experience is actually inferior and more frustrating because, as we more closely replicate real life, we more acutely show the flaws in our replication. It’s an uncanny valley for user experience.

There may be some interesting and more permanent industrial uses for VR — just as rapid 3D industrial prototyping was a thing before MakerBot and will continue to be when it’s gone — but as a mass consumer product? I’m not convinced.

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