User experience designers refer to the uncomfortable barriers between a product and the users full enjoyment and realization of it as friction. From the moment you open the box, the Oculus Rift produces a lot of friction. You have to purchase a premium PC, you have to tether the Rift to the PC, and your games and content are delivered via massive file downloads that take minutes with complicated configurations and set up. The Oculus Rift has the most friction inherent in its product than any hyped consumer product release I can remember. What does that mean for its future?
Most of the general hype in the current wave of interest in Virtual Reality and the Oculus Rift has been around the hardware. The Oculus experience is breathtaking and the availability of affordable high end Virtual Reality displays that produce a magical experience is a true leap forward. At the same time, we live in the Age of Mobile, it is here to stay, and we seemingly love everything about it. In fact, with each passing day, we want more and more of it. In every corner of tech, the market is about apps, mobile, cloud and connectivity with the hardware quickly becoming a commodity. Real innovation will continue to take place where it has over the past 20 years; on the internet. It gives us what we want fast, and lets us experience it together. So, where does that leave the Rift, a product that delivers a solitary experience tethered to a premium PC where you download massive files that take minutes to unpack and install? Without question, Oculus is at the leading edge of the current wave. But, as a product, exactly what future is the Rift prepared for?
While Oculus continues to prepare for a launch of their consumer version, we see a great deal of momentum behind the demand for mobile Virtual Reality. Google Cardboard, which was inconceivable when Palmer Luckey launched the Kickstarter campaign that gave birth to the Rift in 2012, is now in the hands of millions, powered by old media titans like the New York Times giving them away free. It runs on Android which has an install base approaching 2 billion. A lot has changed in these past four years. Samsung’s GearVR, which leverages Oculus technology, had a huge splash on Black Friday and looks poised to reach wider adoption. How much of the addressable market for the Rift has already been claimed? The GearVR is 99 dollars, offers things like a Netflix app and internet browsing, and is configured for the mobile world we live in today.
I am starting to think about products like GearVR or Cardboard as less about Virtual Reality, and more as the mobile display of the future. When we want to consume premium multi media content, we can simply drop our phone into a GearVR and run an app or our content off the Cloud no matter where we are. We live in a world of always on demand entertainment, where we are rewarded for our short attention spans with endless options and free and easy access no matter where we are.
Which brings me to Oculus, and their flagship product, the Rift. Today, as anyone with an Oculus development kit (DK2) will tell you, the experience provided by the hardware is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It is pure, blissful magic. But, and this is key, to get to that experience you have to do a few things you haven’t done in a long time. For starters, you need to buy a premium and Windows based PC. Then, you have to find a massive file on an online store and wait minutes for it to download and eat large swaths of your memory. Then you go into Windows Explorer, paste it from your download folder to the folder Oculus will read from, and then you extract the files. Think about that. Then you crack open that folder to find the one that launches it, then you click, then you wait, and then you hope. And if it doesn’t work, you try another folder or another file, or look for another file called “Direct to Rift mode” to see if that forces the app through to the display. This is repeated for every app, piece of content or game you want to display on your Rift. A lot of friction.
When it works it is mesmerizing. But I can’t help but wonder what Christmas mornings will be like next year with an Oculus under the tree; “Dad, can you check the download time on Windows Explorer on the new computer? Last time I looked it said it had 7 minutes. If the file is done, can you paste it to the D drive and then extract it? Oh, and then find the program in the folder to launch it. Try default mode, if that doesn’t work, can you see if it has a Direct to Rift mode launcher? That’s another program in the folder. That might work too….”. Oculus might be one of the best hardware companies we have ever seen. Their software? It produces a lot of friction.
After awhile, Oculus style Virtual Reality feels less and less like a revolution with endless possibilities and more like a dramatic improvement in the console based gaming experience, if you have the patience to set it up. In a strange way, it takes you back to the early 1990’s when PC gaming was all the rage. You had to shop for games and really commit to something initially. Then you loaded a massive file on your computer, had to wait as everything installed,and you silently hoped it was worth all the time and effort to play the new big blockbuster. Every so often, something glitched and you had to start over. A game was a commitment and we tolerated a little friction.
This just doesn’t feel like where we are at today. We like to try before we buy and we are usually on the go and tangentially doing something else at the same time. Our zero attention span culture needs a dozen games an hour sometimes while we are texting and Facebook messaging. We like stuff hosted in the cloud. Do kids today even understand how hard drive folders and memory works? Why would they? Over 50% of the computers in schools today are Chromebooks. Kids learn on applications in the Cloud with their digital lives in Google Drive or on the latest iPhone handset.
And then there is the issue of the Oculus being tethered to the new premium PC I had to buy to run it. I do understand this is required to offer the most premium experience possible, but it doesn’t feel like where the world is headed. When was the last time any of us were in the market for a premium PC that ran Windows so that we could plug something into it? The high end Alienware PC I bought weighs 61 lbs. This is not a rig you run out to Best Buy and pick up. Like seemingly everything else in the Oculus ecosystem, it is a significant commitment. More friction.
The future is fast, cheap and mobile. It is predominantly device agnostic. And it is absolutely connected and in the cloud. The future is the internet, and in that sense, the next 25 years will continue on the same arc of the last 25, only in hyper speed and on the go.
There are a few examples of innovators taking steps to give us a peek of the internet of the future and Virtual Reality applications that live on the internet and rely on connectivity.
Vizor offers anyone the chance to build 3D and Virtual Reality content in a browser, for free, and with no code. The technology is engaging and cutting edge. The tools also offer the opportunity for deep collaboration as multiple developers can work in real time on the same project and have live updates across multiple users.
Start up Beloola has taken the social paradigm and put virtual reality and 3D interactivity on top of it. The use case here is clear, through more engaing technology we can have richer and deeper and more engaing interactions. You can design your own 3D space and layer in whatever multi media you’d like. The idea that everyday users of a social network are thinking and interacting in 3D is powerful and that alone represents quite a leap.
Another platform for communication and interactivity in Virtual Reality is AltspaceVR. Their use cases range from playing Dungeons and Dragons in virtual reality to hosting full blown events and lectures. It is a slick and open platform and offers a view of the future of web based events. The technology adds a layer of depth and humanness through its immersion and interactivity that is lacking in today’s 2D implementations.
The web of the future is multi dimensional and will be powered by Virtual Reality. Chrome and Firefox already offer support in their browsers for Virtual Reality, and they are hard at work at improvements like a faster refresh rate to make it a more premium experience. WebVR, an API allowing creators to build Virtual Reality experiences for the modern web, will enable a world where we can build an application once and it can be viewed on the display of the viewers choice; mobile, tablet, desktop, or Virtual Reality. The content will be built once and offered from the same URL to a viewer empowered to consume it in the visual way that makes the most sense to them.
In that way, I believe the display is the new layer on top of the modern internet stack. Visitors to a site can choose how they want to interact with a site and they can dive in and swim around in a fully immersive experience over the open web. In my mind, the question isn’t if they will want to dive in, rather, it is whether they will ever want to come back to the surface.
The Oculus hardware is one of the most sophisticated pieces of breakthrough technology I have ever seen or held in my hands. We owe them a great deal of gratitude to tackle what in 2012 seemed nearly impossible. Waves of Virtual Reality technology have crested and rolled back out to sea many times before. This time feels different. More than 2 billion of us have a smartphone in our pocket, we are able to deliver VR in browsers, and it all seems relatively affordable. In the consumer world, modern Virtual Reality is as powerful a wave as we have seen in our lifetimes.
But what about Oculus, and their own trajectory, or wave? In the natural world, a wave is formed when wind transfers energy to water. Waves form with a current and gain momentum and then hum along the surface of the water and alter the course of everything in their path. They gain in height and steepness with a quiet smoothness, that is, until they break and eventually collapse. A wave breaks because of gravity and the friction of the bottom or ground beneath it. The ground was there all along, but it needed time to reveal itself. In the end, the wave eventually comes back down to earth, quite literally, because of friction.