Welcome to the new VR

Like the Internet in 1994, virtual reality is about to cross the chasm from core technologists to the wider world.


When you’re an entrepreneur or investor struggling to bring a technology to market just a little before its time, being too early can feel exactly the same as being flat wrong. But with a bit more perspective, it’s clear that many of the hottest companies and products in today’s tech landscape are actually capitalizing on ideas that have been tried before — have, in some cases, been tackled repeatedly, and by very smart teams — but whose day has only now just arrived.

Virtual reality (VR) is one of those areas that has seduced many smart technologists in its long history, and its repeated commercial flameouts have left a lot of scar tissue in their wake. Despite its considerable ups and downs, though, the dream of VR has never died — far from it. The ultimate promise of the technology has been apparent for decades now, and many visionaries have devoted their careers to making it happen. But for almost 50 years, these dreams have outpaced the realities of price and performance.

To be fair, VR has come a long way in that time, though largely in specialized, under-the-radar domains that can support very high system costs and large installations; think military training and resource exploration. But the basic requirements for mass-market devices have never been met: low-power computing muscle; large, fast displays; and tiny, accurate sensors. Thanks to the smartphone supply chain, though, all of these components have evolved very rapidly in recent years — to the point where low-cost, high-quality, compact VR systems are now becoming available. Consumer VR really is coming on fast now, and things are getting very interesting.

It’s fascinating to watch a transformative, general-purpose technology make the jump from academic and industrial applications to the broader market. Surprises always abound in these situations, but there are historical precedents that can provide clues about what’s ahead. If we compare VR’s transition to the timeline of the emergence of the internet, for example, our current moment matches well with the year 1994. At that time, the Internet and its related technologies had already thrived for years in research settings before they reached the wider public. But despite their shared technical underpinnings, this academic network was nothing like the consumer web that exploded in the late 90s.

I’m just old enough that my first online experience was with what we might call Web 0.1, in 1993 or so, just before Netscape. It wasn’t even obvious yet that the graphical browser and hypertext would usher the web to dominance over other protocols like FTP or Gopher. This pre-boom Internet embodied entirely different sensibilities and priorities than its successor, and it’s worth trying to remember just how much the technical zeitgeist changed once the general public started getting online. Gradually but decisively, the logic of development shifted from the needs of academics and engineers to those of marketers, designers, and consumers. Many of the key design choices for the pre-consumer Internet held up beautifully, while others proved a poor fit in the face of these new pressures. Some of these missteps could be laid aside as better solutions emerged (table-based page layouts gave way to CSS); others we’re still struggling with today (such as easily spoofed “From: addresses” in email).

VR is at that thrilling, fleeting moment when its imminent arrival seems assured, and yet every important question about the shape and nature of its adoption and socioeconomic impact remains unanswered.

Like the Internet in 1994, VR is about to cross the chasm from a dedicated core of technologists, many of whom love it for its own sake, to a much wider cadre of developers and entrepreneurs who are motivated by the dynamics and opportunities that will be unleashed when the wider world gets a taste of virtual environments. Philip Rosedale of High Fidelity points out that maybe a million people have tried VR to date, but that within a few years that number will likely surpass one billion. Just as with the Internet, the technosocial dynamics will be very different at that scale. Think about the productivity level of a small web development team with modern tools and platforms, and compare that to 20 years ago. It’s not just that things are so much easier and cheaper now, but also that thousands of ideas that seemed frivolous or crazy can now be tried with minimal risk. Sure, sometimes you get ChatRoulette — but sometimes you get Snapchat.

But the Internet metaphor only gets us so far. Let’s take a look at the particulars of VR today and make some observations about the current state of play.

People. Aside from the academics, VR is today firmly in the hands of enthusiasts and innovators: those willing to wrestle with development-grade hardware and dedicate time to the minutiae of system configuration and device integration. The ecosystem is largely a cottage industry of indie developers, hardware startups, meetup organizers, and podcasters, all doing their part to spread the good word. But over the next 2-3 years, the demographics, skill sets, and sensibilities of VR creators and users will widen significantly. As this happens, the development agenda will morph to reflect the needs of the larger consumer space, first the early adopters and then the broader market. New kinds of people and organizations will gain influence, bringing goals and approaches more appropriate to this emerging environment; this can already be seen in the emerging WebVR effort, which will make it easier for web designers and developers to create high-quality VR content using familiar technologies, and deliver these experiences right in the browser. Simple numbers dictate that most of these will be newcomers, not the VR “lifers” who currently dominate the field. This might be uncomfortable for some of the old hands, but this transition needs to happen for the technology to thrive.

Systems. There is a tendency in some quarters to place the Oculus Rift on equal footing, rhetorically speaking, with the VR platforms that preceded it, and which are now following it in quick succession. I think this is deeply misleading. True, the Rift is just one point in design space (with a large phone-derived screen, dead-simple optics, an IMU plus an external camera for tracking), and it’s natural for VR researchers to view it as such. Different approaches are surely possible, and it’s likely that subsequent versions of the Rift itself will embody very different design and technology choices — maybe more sophisticated optics, or different tracking solutions.

But in other respects, the Rift constitutes a major break with everything that has come before it. From the perspective of the grand VR enterprise, the Rift is the first in a new generation: a major disrupter and a touchstone for years to come. It shouldn’t be surprising that it took a young outsider to grok that the availability of new components heralded a shift in the possibility landscape. Palmer Luckey was a great student of the history of VR, but his encyclopedic knowledge of previous systems was grounded in powerful dissatisfaction as well as the hacker’s basic assumption that things could work better. This perspective was unlikely to have flourished within academic environments dedicated to incremental progress or entrenched manufacturers accustomed to cost-insensitive niche markets.

So, Oculus is better viewed as a starting point, rather than merely the latest and most advanced in a long line of equally credible devices. Returning briefly to our Internet metaphor, this would be a bit like viewing Netscape as “just another” Internet application like, say, Lynx: true in some respects, but missing the larger point.

Standards. While the Rift indeed ushers in a new era, many questions remain about the software platforms and tools that will enable developers to author and distribute immersive content. Will there be vendor-neutral middleware and standards? Will these be broadly adopted and respected, or will they be “embraced and extended” into irrelevance? As with the web, it’s tempting to view robust standards as crucial; it seems inevitable that the entire space will suffer if, for example, experiences must be ported to each new hardware system. But maybe proprietary content authoring tools like the Unity engine will provide enough interoperability that the standards process will be viewed as a distraction. So much is up in the air at this point, including the foundational question of which organization would lead these efforts.

Applications. What will be the breakout applications in the first wave of consumer VR? This is hard to call since there are a number of big potential consumer markets: gaming, recorded and live entertainment, travel, communication, shared social experiences, and education. All of these areas will likely be transformed by VR, but on different time frames. Which will come first? One interesting thing is that Oculus recently made a surprising announcement of a (supposedly short-term) pivot from games to narrative entertainment. This is probably because of the lack of clear technology choices for input devices, which are not needed in cinema-like applications, but are crucial in gaming. In general, it’s smart to evaluate applications in terms of their hardware needs. Social applications, for example, will probably be held back until additional tracking capabilities are available, especially eye tracking to enable eye contact.

New computing platforms emerge only rarely. VR is at that thrilling, fleeting moment when its imminent arrival seems assured, and yet every important question about the shape and nature of its adoption and socioeconomic impact remains unanswered. Some of the possible futures for VR are certainly preferable to others: more egalitarian, more open, more attentive to the gentler sides of our nature. We should be grateful to the visionaries who got us this far, but we must also be unafraid to acknowledge that many new voices will be needed.

No one gave me permission to host the party, but I’ll say it anyway: welcome to the new VR.

Cropped image on article and category pages by Jordi R Cardona on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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