So let’s talk about VR

26 Jun

I’ve been pretty vocal about my thoughts about VR, both in the past and most recently in an interview I did for gamesindustry.biz. (A few years ago I was pretty vocal about stereopscopic 3D, too, but more about that later.) I’ve consistently thought and said that VR would end up being a fad – not this year’s Next Big Thing or The Future(tm) of gaming, movies or the bringer of peace in our time.

I’ve gotten a lot of responses to that opinion, some of them along the lines of “It’s about time someone said this,” some talking about how wrong I am because VR is so cool and all I need is a demo to make a convert of me.

Let me be clear. I’m enough of a geek to AGREE that VR is cool. I get that. Heck, I supported all the available headsets in a couple of games back in the mid-90s. I can see all sorts of advantages over ordinary, external-screen oriented projects: There’s a sense of scale to VR, a feeling of immersion, a naturalness of some (though just some) aspects of interface and interaction you can’t get anywhere else. I get all that.

I see how cool VR games could be. And I definitely see non-game uses that might ensure VR has SOME place in our 21st century experience.

The question is should we and, more important, WILL we build those games (and non-game applications) and will enough people buy them to make the platform commercially viable.

(And don’t even get me started about all the movie guys getting into VR, afraid they’ll miss the next big thing. VR is NOTHING like movies. In fact, I’d argue that VR demands an approach to content presentation that undercuts literally everything that makes movies unique and wonderful. But that’s another topic for another time…)

Anyway, getting back to the general coolness of VR, my cynicism is largely limited to VR for gaming. For non-gaming purposes, as I said, VR has undeniable and huge potential that really excites me and is likely to appeal to an audience that has no interest in games more “game-y” than Candy Crush Saga. Business, educational and personal users are likely to integrate VR into aspects of their business and personal lives maybe even sooner rather than later.

The low hanging fruit of non-gaming VR is fascinating – VR for virtual meetings, Skype++, training, education and a host of other things seems totally desirable. (For some reason I’m obsessed with the ways in which VR can help phobia sufferers get past their fears. Go figure.). In non-everyday areas of life, the impact of VR seems inevitable and offers a major leap forward in many areas.

All I’m talking about when I trot out the “fad” language is that, for gaming VR is likely to be limited to hardcore players, not the larger casual market. And, though gamers hate hearing this, the business is already turning its focus to the mainstream – not exclusively, but heavily and permanently.

It’s the impact of VR on normal non-game-obsessed humans I’m thinking of when I say VR is a fad. It wouldn’t surprise me if the whole VR thing went away completely. But it would be equally unsurprising if a small group of dedicated geeks who already play games alone or online kept VR going as a niche peripheral, making some money for a handful of VR hardware companies for some time to come.

(And before anyone cites the “enormous” sales of consoles and the audience for online PC games, let’s compare that with the number of people who have smart phones in their pockets right now. The community of real gamers looks pretty small to me in that context.)

But let’s talk about another way to look at new media. Let’s talk a little about the history of technology adaptation as it relates to VR’s its “inevitable” dominance of the media scene.

I realize history isn’t a perfect predictor of the future, but look at technology adaptation historically, and you see something interesting. (At least I find it interesting.)

Adaptation of successful technologies tends to be fairly linear – after some semi-relevant experiments, movies began in the 1890s and grew steadily into a generally accepted part of life. The advent of sound was important, but it’s not like the movies would have ceased to exist without it.

Television was introduced experimentally in the 1930s, with no expectation of commercial success. Upon its release to the public, it has been with us ever since, growing in influence and cultural impact all the while. The advent of color was an important, but evolutionary step without which the medium would have continued unchecked and unstoppable.

Same for radio, personal computers, telephones, mobile phones, stereophonic sound (and successive enhancements), even games themselves.

Successful technologies develop in closed-door experimentation and, upon release, meet a need and develop without breaks. People vote with their dollars for the things they want, those things become part of their lives and they remain so. “Disruption” really isn’t much of an issue once a tech takes hold.

What we see with VR (and stereoscopic 3D) is very different. In both cases, the technology was touted as The Next Big Thing before anyone had any reason to expect that experimental and clearly non-commercial iterations were released commercially. And, most interesting to me, is that they appear, go away, return, go away and return again every N years to rescue some creatively or financially challenged business. The predictable appearance and disappearance – and the seeming blindness and lack of historical memory – kind of amuses me, if you want to know.

Stereoscopic 3D is a case in point. Stereo presentations were popular in the 1890s… and the 1920s… and the 1950s… and the 1980s… and in the 2010s… See the pattern? Every 30 years stereo comes and then it goes. Every time. It was trivial to call out the latest round of 3D movies, televisions and games as a fad that would become irrelevant if not disappear completely. (And, yes, I know 3D movies are still around, but I’d argue they survive because their premium price point helps make up for the mediocre grosses. And with that, I’ll never work in Hollywood, I guess.)

And then we have VR. It was proclaimed as The Future in the 1980s. The New York Times and other mainstream media waxed rhapsodic about it at the time. VR was The Future in the 1990s. It skipped a decade and is now The Future in the 2010s. Yes, optics and head-tracking are getting better. But fundamental problems with the technology still exist that exist well outside the technological advances we’ve seen – headsets that isolate rather than pull people together, can’t be called fashion statements and cause nausea in many users… These are still with us and likely to stay with us. They’re fundamental elements of the experience and they have minimized the impact of VR each time someone gets a burr up their butt about taking the first step toward the holodeck and tries to commercialize it.

So I’ll stand by my VR thoughts.Yes, VR is cool. Technologists and early adaptors love it. But I still think there are challenges ahead. Some of these — cost… quality of optics… lag in head-tracking…– will be solved over time. However, there are others that seem less solvable to me. And it bothers me enough to scream “Fad” because, in part, no one even bothers to address them, so blinded are they by VR’s undeniable coolness. Maybe to shut me up, VR fans simply have to acknowledge problems and engage in dialogue about how to solve them. I’m not an unreasonable guy. Okay, maybe I am, but I’m always open to being proved wrong. It’s just that no one has yet, when it comes to VR.

So… someone tell me you can design and wear a VR headset that doesn’t look stupid and make the user look even more stupid… Tell me how VR can help people – family and friends – engage with one another rather than isolating them…Tell me how a VR game can be both played by an immersed player and still be enjoyed by other people in the room who can’t see what the player is experiencing… Tell me why VR headsets will be the first ever peripheral not bundled with hardware people already want that formed the basis of a successful business. No one I can think of has created a successful business on the basis of a peripheral.

I simply don’t see how those fundamental aspects of the VR experience will be solved. Unless I’m missing something, they can’t be, without fundamentally changing the experience (which means we’d be talking about something other than VR anyway, making this whole conversation/argument moot).

I realize I may look like an idiot in 5 or 10 years. I know lots of you ALREADY think I’m an idiot. But I think it’s too early to tell whether I’m right or simply biased by my prejudices. Similarly, folks enamored of the coolness of VR are equally guilty of being blinded by that coolness – people who tout the potential of VR to be an inevitable game-changer and/or a disruptor express no other argument ASIDE from coolness.

So rather than focusing exclusively on creative compelling experiences and ignoring serious limitations and challenges ahead, let’s acknowledge that there are real barriers to commercial success beyond some very specific needs and relatively small audiences. The prevailing attitude and argument seems to be “if you build it (and the price point and optics improve) they will come.” And I’m not buying it.

What would this dialogue look like if you weren’t allowed to say “cool” or “compelling” or “creative?” What if you had to say “I see the non-creative challenges and here’s how to solve them?” That seems like a constraint that should be informing the VR discussion before we all get carried away.

Coolness isn’t enough to tout any technology (or anything else) as The Future of anything.

5 Responses to “So let’s talk about VR”

  1. Jonathan June 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

    “So… someone tell me you can design and wear a VR headset that doesn’t look stupid and make the user look even more stupid”

    People looked stupid talking to a plastic brick but that didn’t undermine the functionality of cell phones. Now it doesn’t look so stupid anymore. Fashion is subjective.

    “Tell me how VR can help people – family and friends – engage with one another rather than isolating them”

    Facebook. Or Faceplace or whatever they decide to call it.

    “Tell me how a VR game can be both played by an immersed player and still be enjoyed by other people in the room who can’t see what the player is experiencing

    Screencasting. VRcasting – think Case inside Molly’s head.

    “Tell me why VR headsets will be the first ever peripheral not bundled with hardware people already want that formed the basis of a successful business

    The future is mobile. Think GearVR with a Galaxy Note(x) built in.

    Glad I didn’t have to live through all those years of disappointments. That said, I would actually prefer for it to remain a niche, BBS era kind of thing for a while to come. That might actually be more interesting, and help to shape the architecture without excessive corporate influence.

  2. Julian June 28, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    Thanks for offering to debate this rationally Warren. Many of us VR enthusiasts are fed up with the hype too. To answer some of your points:
    Once a technology becomes fit for purpose we tend to forget all the essential failures that pathed the way (as well as deny foreign contributions). Remember that the first TV system was mechanical and there were many attempts at flying before the Wright brothers.
    Space sims came and went in the past and are now showing early promise for VR. They could thus be considered a fad but they also laid the groundwork for more sophisticated games. There is a limit to the range of stories you can tell when tied to a cockpit.
    The two things you most want to do in VR are use your hands to manipulate and legs to navigate. Most people involuntarily take a step forward the first time they try an HMD and find that nothing happens. I’ve always felt that VR will go nowhere without locomotion and will declare my self-interest here (see our website and YouTube).
    We’ve found that non-gamers enjoy VR even more that hardcore gamers. Middle aged women seem particularly impressed, possibly because they see games as something their sons do and reject the abstract gamepad as an interface. Standing freely and moving your legs is a totally intuitive way to navigate a 3D world. One of the key causes of nausea, ocular-vestibular discrepancy, is also solved.
    In 2008 Logitech announced that they had already sold a billion mice – that’s quite a good peripheral business (that also relates to navigation). This notion that VR is antisocial is simply uninformed. It’ll allow you to interact with far-flung family and friends as if they were next to you. I don’t personally buy this idea that one person will wear an HMD and everyone else will look at the telly. The shared experience comes from everyone wearing them. As for what you look like, the whole point of fashion is that it keeps changing.
    No one predicted that business would be the killer app for computers and computer gaming came off the back of that. Our job is to create the tools and push the boundaries. The reaction we’ve had from way over 10,000 people trying the ROVR (with Rift) is too good to give up and walk away. A major bank in the USA is currently using it for events and the feedback is quote “awesome, great fun, amazing, wonderful, super-fun, etc.”
    What’s wrong with that?
    btw I think your obsession with VR therapy is totally justified. Just love the medical applications of all this.

    Also posted on http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2015-06-23-warren-spector-on-e3-vr-is-a-fad

  3. Ben June 28, 2015 at 5:13 pm #

    Hi Warren, interesting piece. I’m a media historian – among other things. I’d disagree that successful technologies are ‘linear’, though. Their successes make them seem linear, perhaps, but that image privileges are present view. There was nothing inherent in the technology of cinema that meant it had to become a narrative entertainment form. We also need to think about the way that individuals make and remake technologies, sometimes completely reinventing that technology’s purpose – VCR’s were meant to be timeshifting units rather than film consumption units. The point being, one of the main criticism of your points have been ‘no one wanted colour TV, now look at us’. Well, yes, but audiences didn’t want consumer TV in the 70s and governments didn’t want pay TV in the 60s. For every ‘successful’ technology, there are a 100 technologies that failed for dozens of social, economic, legal, or market reasons. Things are only ‘inevitable’ (shorts – narrative cinema – sound – colour) looking back, not looking forward. If you’d like, I can point you towards some useful books on the subject.

    • Warren Spector June 28, 2015 at 6:37 pm #

      You make some good points with regard to media development and adoption. However, the key difference in the media I cited and you discussed is that ONCE ADOPTED they continued to exist consistently and linearly. They didn’t appear, disappear, appear again and disappear again. They were not touted as savior media but logical advances over what already existed. I can’t think of a medium that succeeded with the kind of on-again/off-again history of 3D and VR. The media that succeeded (and I think we largely agree about which media those are) went through evolutionary growth that was evident even as it was happening. They didn’t depend on revolution, then disappearance, then revolution #2, then disappearance. and so on. I mistrust any medium that comes along and calls itself The Future THIS TIME. I could be wrong, often am, and would be pleased to be wrong this time, but I’d still call the history of 3D and VR as representative of a development history that has never led to ongoing mainstream success.

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