Long-time virtual world-watcher Wagner James Au believes you’re not missing much if you’re missing the point of all the recent virtual reality hype. This is a recurring theme on his personal blog and the subject of a new Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Virtual Second Thoughts, in which he writes:
Business analysts who predict mass growth of VR are extrapolating from adoption trends of personal computers and videogame consoles, but those are fundamentally different products. It remains a mystery if there exists any substantial market for technology that’s so intrusive, beyond a niche of enthusiasts.
If I’m right, the next few years will see this latest hype wave for VR crest and subside, leaving perhaps a few million new consumers—a niche within the hard-core gamer niche who will use their VR devices mostly for what Second Life is still mostly used for now: 3-D games, and, of course, 3-D porn.
Au is right to offer a sober, if somewhat sour, counterpoint to the frothy boosterism surrounding much of the virtual reality conversation, but his argument seems to fall into two traps.
The first of these is a “Second Life failed, therefore this will fail too” argument. It’s a bit of an apples vs oranges comparison — the type of comparison I, myself, used to good effect in the past to add some much-needed perspective to the one-sided conversation surrounding other hype-driven platforms (even if time occasionally proved me wrong). Technology has advanced significantly in the decade or so since Second Life saw its heyday, as have social and cultural perspectives related to technology. Second Life was famously buggy, resistant to scale, and despite the rhetoric repeated by those of us who embraced the platform regardless was a far cry from the truly immersive 3D experience we pretended it was.
Further, where Second Life was a single product produced by one player in a virtual worlds industry of sorts, virtual reality is the sector itself. If Au were to argue that Oculus might suffer the same fate as Linden Lab, I may not bat an eyelash — although the economics for the modestly venture-funded Linden Lab vs. those for a Facebook-acquired unicorn like Oculus might make just a bit of a difference. But as it stands, virtual worlds as a category did not fail — see Minecraft (which Au likens to Second Life in his WSJ piece) as evidence — Second Life as a single entrant in that category did…
The second is Au’s contention that VR’s sweet spot lies in a niche within a niche — a certain sub-segment of the most ardent gaming enthusiast population. Perhaps this is colored by the fact that Oculus and HTC Vive themselves have gamers squarely in their sights, but misses the potential implications for storytelling, entertainment, events, education, healthcare, shopping, social networking, workplace interaction, and ultimately the enterprise. Personally, I have little interest in gaming. Further, I have literally no vested interest in whether or not virtual reality fulfills its potential — I don’t work in the space, I earn nothing by writing this post, I’m merely an outside observer (I wrote “merely” but when it comes to providing perspective about new technologies, “outside” is an incredibly powerful place to be), and I’m still waiting for my Rift like most everybody else. Simply, I am fascinated with what virtual reality and augmented reality might mean for how we live and work in the future. I do believe there is something profound in the blurring between the physical and the digital.
So consider that the “business analysts who predict mass growth” include folks like Goldman Sachs’s Heather Bellini, who sees VR (and its cousin augmented reality) as an emergent multi-billion dollar opportunity. In her view, gaming will ultimately come to represent a mere fraction of the market for a technology that will “touch almost every industry that we know of today”. Maybe Bellini is merely contributing to the hype, but hers is hardly the voice of an echo chamber insider with a vested interest in boosting her own burgeoning business (although you could argue her bank has a vested interest in the success of the sector as a whole and many of the specific tech giants backing the trend in particular). The same could be said of someone like Charlene Li, who placed virtual reality on her list of 10 digital transformation trends for 2016 — although positioned prudently as a technology to watch, not one that she’d advise you to jump into today.
Consider too that, according to Gartner, as of 2015 virtual reality had already crested the hype cycle’s peak, survived the plunge into the “Trough of Disillusionment”, and entered into the “Slope of Enlightenment” — on a trajectory Gartner believes will last 5-10 years before VR hits the mainstream. By this standard, media’s current fascination with virtual reality — a fascination that goes beyond reporting on the technology to encompass early experimentation with the technology itself — is less a sign of unchecked hype and more like first forays into mainstream understanding. And to be fair, not all media coverage has been uniformly positive (nor should it be). If there’s a fair point in the comparison of virtual reality with Second Life, it speaks to the truth that media can and will play as big a role in building the hype as in breaking it down.
So who’s more right? Wagner James Au or more positive analysts like Bellini and Li? How about Gartner?
And what’s my point in this post?
If we take the long view, it’s clear that virtual reality is hardly new — but the current generation of 3D headset technologies certainly are. It’s right to recognize that they’re not quite ready for the mainstream, without handicapping their ability to reach mass scale over time. It’s important to acknowledge their limitations, without diminishing their future potential. It’s important to learn from the failures of the past, without writing off the successes we’ve yet to see.
Simply put, it’s far to soon to write off virtual reality based simply on its current state — or worse, based on failures of an ostensibly similar technology in the past. That said, dissenting voices like Au’s are vital because it’s also far too soon to hail virtual reality as a definitive transformative shift in how we experience technology — and life. The true reality for virtual reality lies somewhere in between these divergent positions — in productive dialogue, critical thinking (more so than simple criticism), and the ability to keep an open mind. It’s likely that no single voice is right (not about everything, not all the time) but that what’s right and real will come from your ability to weigh both sides and make informed decisions about what all of this means for you. And that means you need to look beyond the hype and listen to more than haters.