/ Alice Taylor / 4 am Wed, Apr 20 2016
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  • Oh This Crazy VR Hype

    Oh This Crazy VR Hype

    A few weeks back, I was at the annual Game Developers Conference. GDC kicked off this year with its first-ever VRDC, two days of all-VR, all the time. On top of that, there was VR programming sprinkled across the main event schedule, too: it’s launch year for the much-touted Big Headsets.

    This is pretty normal: new tech being talked about at a tech-centric conference. But, the VRDC Summit was so popular that the lines for the talks went round the internal blocks of the Moscone, and the talks had overflow rooms…that had overflow rooms. On the second day, management had to move the entire Summit to a space twice the size: a first, in all the 15 years that I’ve been going to GDC.

    It was a developer frenzy.

    What’s going on? VR isn’t brand new, we’re on version 2.0 here; has it finally evolved to where somehow, suddenly, it looks like it might be beginning to work? Or is this industry desperation?

    When VR didn’t work, it was a grubby arcade-alike with a faint smell of puke. Now, with the top end gear just-released to the early adopter crowd, it has the hallmarks of some kind of possible game changer. As is common in new tech hype, the possibilities in VR are being touted as the next major shift in how Things Get Done. The next major tech paradigm.

    OK, some traditional signs of possible near-future mini-doom: a growing lurch of VC investments into VR & AR (over $1.1bn already in 2016) which will pile on the pressure to succeed, as big and as fast as possible. Then there’s the issue that VR isn’t something you can easily do on the bus, or at work when the boss isn’t looking. VR isn’t very sociable yet, either - and if we’ve learned any lessons from the growth of Facebook games and then Mobile games, it’s that social, bus-time and sneaky-work-play are killer use cases.

    But there are so many pros. VR’s potential could easily stretch to defense (urgh), tourism, communication, leisure - as you may be reading in all the headlines. We heard all that before with Second Life, or more recently too even with 3D Printing, but there’s a difference with VR: this time we have a phalanx of huge companies visibly on board, very publicly "long play" invested: Facebook, Samsung, Google, Valve, Sony.
    And IKEA!

    If this billion-dollar bunch don’t want to see VR fail, it makes me think maybe that’s enough support-cash buffer to ride out any shorter term post-hype jitters. Microsoft have Hololens for AR, and they’ll undoubtedly release a VR set soon too, they’re honestly just not that hard to make. And of course everyone’s wondering: what is Apple doing, will they jump in soon? I hear rumours from excellent sources that they’re on it.

    Because VR is just so damn riveting when it’s done well. There are experiences in this tech that we haven’t begun to fully explore yet, as VR seems to harness the brain in equally terrifying and exciting ways that other experiences don’t:

    You’ll hear the term "presence" a lot: because VR + your brain = Real Feelings. Vertigo, wonder, adrenaline, butterflies. You feel them. It’s visceral.

    Watching someone try virtual reality is the opposite of its promise: awkward to the point of alienating. (Hence, some of the reaction to TIME’s VR cover story last year.) But, like stepping through the looking glass, what you find on the other side is as destabilizing as it is impossible to sufficiently describe.

    Words can’t express what it feels like to fake out your visual cortex this totally. The only way to grok virtual reality is to try it yourself.

    Zuck has set the timeline for discovery: 5-20 years. Alibaba thinks you’ll do your shopping in VR. Shopify’s already built a thing. Real estate people want to sell homes through VR (sigh). Kids in classrooms will be able to travel the world in VR. There’s free porn for VR. Educational uses. Long-distance team comms uses. Et cetera.

    Big brains are working on the social aspects. I can only imagine the fitness uses, especially as I walked past a lady jogging on a treadmill in her garage last week: visibly bored and mostly stationary, what a perfect opportunity). So many possibilities, it’s like a second… life: although SL’s actual Wagner James Au thinks this is definitely the Metaverse hype-crash all over again.

    So this is now, the early-adopter period, when the headsets are huge, ugly, clunky, often tethered, heavy. It can’t be that long before they’re shaped like Boba Fett’s helmet, or your AR rig is an X-Wing Fighter Pilot lid; it’s not like Disney doesn’t know how to make toys, or VR. Imagine when Apple does decide to get its design team in gear on this one, and how much Google has learned already to pour into its more grown-up Cardboard (coming soon, I’m told).

    Importantly, too, back to the developers: it doesn’t have to be expensive to make VR experiences: with middleware like Unity, and app stores... it all feels very familiar to a hungry/starving game development industry, most of whom bear scars from missing the previous gold rushes in Facebook and the App store(s). It’s cheap and easy enough to take part - as long as you get in there early and establish a foothold.

    New platforms are a land grab.

    Here’s what’s next, for sure: some inevitable but mild post-launch-hype weariness, especially as gamers wait for triple-A content to turn up. Sony’s Playstation bundle arrives in fall (their presales sold out in seconds); that’ll be the next audience-size jump. Then comes Oculus Touch, and the chunk of freebie Gear folks arrive (even though Gear and Cardboard probably only appeal to kids/casual browsers in the early days). Design nerds begin to turn their eye towards the lumpen headsets, and improvements begin to flow.

    Over a few years, a handful of companies will luck out in the VR app stores, by figuring out the native game or app design style that wins out, like social did for Facebook and free to play did for Mobile; then they’ll out-buy the audience acquisition channels and force the majority of the industry out of the arena.

    So everyone else swift-swivels/pivots/slowly turns towards AR as the Next Big Thing. The money starts to flow away from VR and towards the next tech hype, assuming that the tech investment bubble hasn’t burst by then. Google releases Glasses 2.0, and Disney releases a Leia-Yourself Hologram Kit...

    I would do a timeline, but that’s just asking for trouble. You: team Definite-Overhype, team Tech-Evolution-as-Usual, or team Long-Overdue-Arrival-of-the-Life-Changing-Metaverse?

    Thoughts, comments and hey-you-missed-this pointers: in the comments below. Go.

    (Image: Woman Using a Samsung VR Headset at SXSW 2015 (2015-03-15 14.10.24 by Nan Palmero), Nan Palmero, CC-BY)

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