What VR Is Today — and What It Needs to Become

What VR Is Today — and What It Needs to Become

With full-immersive virtual reality headsets arriving in homes, HTC Vive (the system that has beat Facebook’s Oculus out of the gate due to Rift component shortages) realized that the best way to understand, appreciate and ultimately demand VR is to see it in action. Using green screen, his short video combines live footage of four players with a real-time view of the digital worlds they see through their goggles. Like the Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality demo I shared last week, it’s a compelling look at what even early stage mixed reality makes possible — and well worth watching.

TechInsider has turned some of the best moments into gifs, if you’re short on time and just want the highlights.

While impressive, only time — and importantly, our ability to realize applications well beyond gaming in particular or even entertainment in general — will tell if this generation of VR will make the leap from “nice” to “necessary”. This leap marks the crucial difference between whether VR is doomed to be a fad (a gimmick for gamers) or destined to become the future. As Lev Grossman writes in Time magazine:

Now the key to VR’s survival is whether it can become not just fun, but necessary. Everybody liked the cyclorama, but people like a lot of things, and most of them are cheaper than VR and don’t involve strapping a headset to your face. What remains to be seen is how well VR can deliver nonfun, nonoptional experiences: social connections (that’s why Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion two years ago) and productivity applications. When your boss makes it mandatory, when your family demands it, that’s when VR will go from a novelty to genuine mass medium. It’s great to be wanted. What VR needs now is to be needed.

The Vive demo video is certainly fun. It’s also maybe a little bit social (although the real experience isn’t nearly as communal as the juxtaposed green screen images would have you believe). But it doesn’t position virtual reality as a need-to-have, as a non-optional technology for a broad range of personal, social and professional experiences.

I appreciate that Vive intends to show potential early adopters (gamers) exactly what their first generation system has to offer (for the most part, games), but I’m left wondering if, in doing so, they’re closing minds to the broader potential — and in doing so, relegating virtual reality to the real world of “not for me”.

Bear in mind, while virtual reality is “new to you”, it’s not necessarily “true new”. We’ve seen this challenge play out before.

Early virtual reality

Grossman’s piece in Time scans back over more than a century of immersive media, finding that just about all have fizzled out as fads. Digital culture pioneer Howard Rheingold (the man who foresaw the future of social networks — he called them virtual communities) believed artificial experience (VR) would ultimately be even more transformative than artificial intelligence, even as 90s-era google-and-glove experiences proved problematic. And of course the more recent rise and fall of 3D virtual worlds like Second Life saw the pattern repeat — virtual realities showed promise but failed to gain purchase among the mainstream population.

So will the new wave of virtual reality technologies fizzle out as fads too? They might — especially if we let them.

This is not a matter of tech. We can’t assume the awkward computer-tethered face masks, cool but ultimately unnecessary gaming applications, a near-term lack of content, and relatively high price points will remain state of the art for long. Recall how genuinely unappealing the early internet and first generation mobile phones were. But what made those technologies transformative — and what can ultimately make virtual and augmented reality transformative as well — is the utility they provided for everyday people, every day, and in every area of their lives.

So yes, the gaming demos are cool. And to be fair, industry analysts and business reporters do talk and write about current and future opportunities for virtual reality in an array of areas from real estate to healthcare to collaboration to education. That’s the right conversation to have. Those are the right targets to aim for. They are use cases that could make virtual reality non-fun (a positive in this case!), non-optional, and ultimately impossible to ignore. Ultimately though, the key lies in bridging the cool with the common — in moving from two conversations to one that is compelling enough to attract early adopters yet visionary enough to convince the masses.

Only then will virtual reality go from virtually “nice” to really “necessary”. In the meantime, enjoy your games. 🙂

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