What Does Virtual Reality Want to Be When It Grows Up? Three Scenarios For the Future

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As much as Silicon Valley and the tech world can feel like a mythical Never Land, a place where products will feel youthful and new forever, at some point every technology has to grow up. Normally, what it becomes when it grows up is entirely in the hands of consumers.  A visionary product will ultimately become what average everyday consumers want it to be.

So, what do consumers want virtual reality to be?

If you ask someone on the street what virtual reality is, they will inevitably respond with some variation of “you’ll be whisked away to a place and feel like you are really there.” Curiously, people still aren’t talking in actual product terms. In a strange and counter intuitive way given all the reporting there has been about the requisite hardware, virtual reality is still most often described as an esoteric idea, as opposed to a tangible product category with physical characteristics. Pedestrian descriptions of virtual reality are still very ethereal, frothy and lofty, and the words we use escape a sense of tangibility. For a category with the word “reality” in the name, it is still described in very imaginary terms.

It makes me wonder about consumer expectations in the short term, and where all this is headed in the longer view. After all, at some point, the category will have to grow up, mature, and deliver on those expectations.   What we still do not know is what the public hopes virtual reality will actually do and what consumers are hoping it solves for.

“All children, except one, grow up.”
― Peter Pan

On its face this might not seem like an issue given how new the category is. Infancy is always an easy out. But consider this same phenomenon if someone asked you to describe any other technological breakthrough of the last 20 years. You would probably start with the basic hardware configuration, describe the software or functionality, and then conclude with a basic overview of the benefits realized.  Imagine its the 2000’s and you were asked to describe a smartphone after initially being introduced to the concept. You’d probably start by painting a picture of a rectangular handset, then you’d talk about what it did, then land on a light overview of how great it is. And if you asked 100 people at that time, the answers would generally be similar.

Now think again about virtual reality. The only consistency between descriptions offered by potential consumers is something like “you feel like you are somewhere else”. But how people arrive at that idea is radically different depending on who you talk to. That speaks to various and competing consumer expectations. And in a new product category, that can be an issue. A very dangerous issue.

To be fair, virtual reality has progressed at breakneck speed and the basic concepts are “out there”. We have miraculously solved the previous technological barriers to widespread consumer adoption of premium virtual reality technology.  In the end, that seems like the harder variable in the overall equation to solve. The folks at Oculus and elsewhere have broken new ground and closed the gaps that now enables technology that had previously merely lived in the imaginations of the most talented engineers in the world. But strikingly, as a new industry congeals, forms, and tries to rise out of its silicon laden primordial soup and be born into infancy, there is a total lack of an industry wide road map.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is initially indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke

To some this ambiguity might masquerade as possibility and this might feel exciting and even liberating. It’s as if we talk like we are going to grant the world a magic trick and it can be configured however anyone wants to do anything they desire. However, this is not going to be reality and it is certainly not typical for other major product launches.

I simply do not believe that in our lifetimes we have had a more wicked mix of radical breakthrough technology combined with a complete and collective cluelessness about where it is headed.  We simply have no idea what to even tell the public about where virtual reality is going. In real terms we see companies like Magic Leap raise one billion dollars which makes them feel like a very consequential player, yet with no tangible product and no explicit plan to release one they feel like a fantasy at the same time.

It seems as an industry we have an addiction to selling virtual reality’s potential which is overshadowing a meaningful need to describe what it will actually be and do. And as any addict will tell you, admitting you have a problem, and admitting you are powerless in its midst is the first step in overcoming it. Considering no one I know admits this problem yet tells me we are pretty far from solving it. Anyone working in virtual reality right now is a hope junkie, and after all, there is still a nice wad of cash in our collective pockets, so the motivation to get clean hasn’t yet arrived.

Let’s say we rounded up ten experts in contemporary virtual reality, and we asked each of them for their vision of the future. It would be easy for me to suggest we would get ten different answers. But that would not be intellectually honest.  If we gave everyone truth serum and asked, we would actually get the same answer, and that would be “I don’t know”.

The reality (the real reality, not the virtual kind) is, you’d have ten people that have no clue.  No one knows where this stuff is headed. All we know is we like it. We are like a group of teenagers that just stumbled into the most exclusive wine cellar in Paris. We are drinking something that seems foreign and familiar all at the same time. We don’t really know what it is, but, we like it and we want more of it. Heck, the more exotic we convince ourselves it is, the better it makes us feel, and the more we start to talk about the adventurous nature of it all. We fall victim to believing this is all true, well deserved, and things are unfolding exactly the way we planned. The fact that you are living on borrowed time in someone else’s cellar never really has a chance to sink in until its too late.

“And Peter Pan chose this particular house because there were people here who believed in him.”
–Narrator, Peter Pan

Ultimately, what we are dealing with is a highly fragmented vision of the future as it relates to immersive 3D display technology.  This gives rise to a race between very talented, smart and creative people that sense opportunity that is there for the taking; if they can just outwit and outrun the other creative, smart and talented people with their unique vision of the future. As time passes and momentum builds, a rising tide lifts all ships and everyone’s fantastical vision becomes indirectly contingent on a few others. The more fantastical your vision is, the more you need a few other fantastical visions out there already being socialized to ensure yours feels like it is just another part of the ecosystem. A sense of trust develops between the lofty and competing visions. At the very least, this leaves us with several distinct possibilities for a roadmap into the future and everyday I talk to someone with a new use case in a seemingly new direction to take the technology.

No doubt we have seen other major technological innovations lately.   But they all started with a much clearer base case.  Take HD, smartphones, online college classes, 3D printers, or email, it doesn’t matter. When something new hits, we are amazed, we get it, the configuration is fairly settled, and we move into the future.  And yes, something like smartphones have iterated and tweaked and improved, but the base case and configuration are still tangentially similar.  They are still smallish rectangles with screens and keyboards that we take everywhere and use to communicate when we want. The industry pretty much knew who we would sell those to, what the device would generally look like, and we could trace a reasonable story into the future of what was about to happen. We never had this wild west quality contemporary virtual reality is taking on.

Are there any potential directions we can discern? 

With virtual reality, it feels as though we are racing to market and we don’t even have the base case or the basic configuration of the technology figured out yet. Is it for phones and eventually destined to be the new top layer on the mobile stack? I have this thought as I look at the GearVR from Samsung. Or maybe its a premium display for high end gaming systems.  That certainly fits the initial vision of the Oculus Rift which costs 600 dollars and requires a 1k dollar PC (that wieghs 63 lbs). Or maybe it is the utopian “everything will be in VR and available for everyone” vision that cascades from the blogs of folks like Singularity University where virtual reality will be all things to all people and we will soon be watching movies, and talking to loved ones, and taking trips, and watching sports and doing everything in virtual reality.  This is the future scenario that says virtual reality will be everywhere and in everything. This is the candy coated frothy vision of a virtual reality Valhalla with limitless and boundless potential. This is the most often explanation given by “insiders”, precisely because it makes the makers happy.

It bears pointing out I have yet to hear a consumer talk as excitedly as a developer about everything being in VR, all the time. And as the Greenlight VR report pointed out recently, there is still an awareness problem, with over half of consumers knowing nothing to very little about VR at all. When you spend time in the market research, it feels as though the sooner future scenarios start to take shape, the healthier the industry will be in the long term and the happier target consumers will be in the short run.

I believe we have three future scenario’s starting to emerge:

  1. The New Mobile Display. This is the scenario that says VR will evolve as a technology to be used mainly with mobile devices when we want to immerse ourselves in content. This works in tandem with scenarios that speak to the domination of mobile devices on our future world. If all we will use is mobile computers, we will need better screens.  Devices like GearVR solve that problem.
  2. Premium Gaming. This scenario acknowledges the arms race in gaming and accepts that gaming is the entertainment platform of the future. To subscribe to this scenario you believe that this technology is still inherently expensive to do really well, and consumers will only want the best.
  3. Ubiquitous and Pervasive, “VR everywhere and for everyone!” This scenario speaks to the current fragmented nature of devices and software and describes that continued evolution. In this scenario that fragmentation only accelerates which leaves consumers with many options to fold VR into their lives as they see fit. This is fundamentally optimistic, but it also assumes large and massive demand for VR in the everyday lives of consumers. While this is positive and optimistic for developers, it has yet to be proven in any meaningful way. Consider this a classic high risk / high reward scenario.

More than anything, it is highly interesting to me that we are still working this out. At what point will we know what the base case and base install are?  Is it a technology that is hardware driven (Oculus)? A way of enhancing experience that’s primarily mobile and software driven (Cardboard). Or maybe it is in between and a bit of both, with the GearVR being an example of something great enough to feel premium and provide a better experience than Cardboard while still being lightweight and mobile, but not too expensive to be priced out of mass consumption like Oculus has run the risk of.

The New Mobile Display

With GearVR, the hardware is slick, sleek and mobile, but not so mobile that you’ll use it in line at Costco. This is the device that is for premium content of which something like light gaming is a subset.  This is the new layer on the mobile stack that says when you have the time and place you plug in and view the best content you have.  Maybe you are on a plane, train, in a dorm room, or hotel.

In its current form, the only thing a PC has over a mobile computing device or phone is the display.  With the advent of fast wifi, cheap cloud storage and cloud processing, the box on our desk no longer has speed, memory or processing as advantages.  However, a mobile device simply could not compete with the size and scope of a high end monitor.  We like big displays and PC’s still provide at least that.

But what if the GearVR, and other similar devices, becomes the new extended use display for mobile?

Sometimes I wonder if a conceptual sounding title like “virtual reality” is more of a barrier. What if we never introduced GearVR as a virtual reality device?  Virtual reality feels like a high end and complicated gaming and entertainment platform.  The label feels limiting right out of the box.  What if we simply thought of what we think of as virtual reality as the future of immersive displays, specifically immersive mobile displays?  Does it have the potential to be nothing less than the mobile monitor of the future?

Have a long plane ride?  Plug a 3D display into your phone, and watch Netflix in immersive 3D. Moving into a college dorm or new apartment?  The GearVR is billed as “the home theater of your dreams”.  No need to find a few hundred bucks, and lug a big rectangle around and worrying about finding a place to hang it.

It seems that this could be less and less about virtual reality and more and more about adding another layer to the already rich mobile technology stack.  Most of us think of the application as the top layer today.  But we are racing towards a world where the application can render to a small 2D screen, or an immersive and large 3D one based on how we want to consume that particular content and what we have jacked in.  This is new and this is big.  The potential of a mobile internet that we can dive into and swim around in is endless.  The question is, once we dive in will we ever come back up?

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What makes this a very compelling scenario is simple and obvious. It’s the fact that 2.5 billion of us now have a very personal supercomputer in our pocket.  A very personal and very powerful computer missing only one thing, a brilliant display.

Premium Gaming

Which leads us to the Oculus and their product strategy with the Rift.

They want the corner of the market Apple staked out early on with MP3 players, and then later with phones.  It’s the ecosytem. Build an experience so premium that people want to buy in, and are willing to pay a little more to do so. And as they go, they will accumulate other peices that makes the experience better, and before they know it, they are fairly wedded to your product and the many other things they have acquired to make it better. The challenge here in VR land is this ecosystem requires a heavy commitment to deliver a premium experience. This is an experience that can be delivered not only on a PC, but a premium PC with specs beyond what most people already have.  A PC with the specs required by Oculus is only currently in about 9% of domestic US homes. As for the other 91%, its not only that they don’t have the PC they need for an Oculus currently, its that they probably aren’t even using what they have very much. When was the last time any of us were really excited about a new PC purchase?

There is certainly palpable excitement in the hardcore gaming community for virtual reality. Many of these users have watched the evolution of Oculus closely, some have early versions of development kits, and this is the group with the clearest vision of what the technology looks and feels like, what they are willing to pay, and what they need it for.

The fact that this is an established group of early adopters and vocal enthusiasts is good. The challenge is they are less than 10% of the population and fall short of being categorized as mainstream.

This is even fine and well, because premium gaming is an explosive and profitable industry.  The challenge for developers though is the risk with respect to building new VR titles. For starters it is expensive. Far more expensive than a traditional title. It also takes longer to develop and requires more from your best talent which is hard for independent companies to commit to. If you have profitable titles and a successful system in place, it seems risky to turn that upside down and commit to developing for technology that isn’t even released yet. It’s the opportunity cost. Why kill the golden goose for something no one has really even experienced yet?

Every time I mention this, I get grilled by hardcore gamers who accuse me of “not getting it”. This might be true, and on some level I can guarantee there is something I am missing.  But I am also keenly aware of the simple fact that I can go to the Oculus store today and still not see a single major title or blockbuster available. There are demos,and “experiences”, but no premium games. Some of this is also related to the technology as we still don’t have the mouse of VR yet to assist with navigation.

When asked about all this, my response is simple and blunt; just because developers can spend a year of their best people’s time and spend millions of dollars developing for an as yet to be established technology, it does not mean that they are. If you are a developer or game company, you know all too well that checks written on potential don’t cash. If they did, they would all be retired with what they made from Kinect or any other of a number of next big things in gaming which failed to fulfill their potential.

To be clear, I do believe virtual reality has a future in hardcore gaming. But it is going to take hard work and it is going to take a long time. Mainstreaming will happen, but not overnight.

Ubiquitous and Pervasive, “VR everywhere and for everyone!”

There are several challenges which will make widespread and mainstream adoption challenging in the short run. If you think of mobile as the dominant platform of the future, one challenge is the high level of fragmentation in device.  Think about Android.  We are on track for a few billion installs of Android. In a world of 7 billion people its an amazing feat.  This is good in one sense for virtual reality, but don’t forget, good VR is as much about the hardware as anything. And in our world of two billion Android installs, it also seems like there is at least half that many unique devices (only a mild exaggeration). This can be highly problematic for virtual reality development.

As developers for Cardboard will tell you, it gets very complicated very fast trying to develop immersive VR apps for a variety of devices and viewers. In VR absolutely everything in the hardware counts.  The developer needs to know the size of the phone because that impacts screen size and the viewer. The CPU matters as does the gyroscope, and many other complicated components all take center stage as a consideration. On the one hand, Android devices are similar enough to make it tempting, however minor differences in hardware specs are the difference between a magical and transcendental experience and one that makes someone sick. To develop VR for Android, you must be comfortable with the notion that your App, which is extraordinarily complex to develop to begin with, might either take your user to a magical place, or it could bring their lunch back up. Exactly how long can that sustain? Once the novelty wears off, probably not very long.

But inherent in this patchwork quilt of devices and uses might just be the way forward.

Maybe virtual reality is like the automobile.  Its basically hardware, and it is happy to fill many, many use cases.  Why pin it down? We have a multitude of different types of cars all with different sizes and uses. Maybe this is alright. Could virtual reality be for entertainment what cars represented for transportation?

Cars injected themselves very quickly into our daily life. Like VR, they were initially seen as more of a lifestyle purchase. We had horses to do the real work of getting around. But we quickly adapted them for all kinds of uses based on personal needs and wants.

Cars quickly morphed to handle a number of different situations.  There is a chance VR could do the same thing. It starts as almost a novelty, then it starts to pervade every aspect of the broader category.  Cars allowed individuals to decide where they wanted to go and when. They were liberating. Automated and sophisticated transportation became personalized. In a similar way, maybe VR becomes the individual conduit for every individual to a personalized world of entertainment that was previously unreachable. In the same way the car wasn’t the place, VR itself isn’t the entertainment.  Its the hardware and the conduit. It gets you there.

This is the ubiquotious VR is everywhere vision.  You can enjoy the premium hardware in the countryside on weekends.  You have something else to grind through the week with. You keep your really cool stuff under a tarp in the garage so the kids don’t mess with it. It takes you to sporting events you previously could not attend. Many different makers will continue to build many devices and we decide the use cases as we go. All we care about is that there are options for us and what we want to do.

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
–Peter Pan

This starts to make a lot of sense on the surface. However, there are a few problems with my car metaphor in the near term that we still need to solve for.

The problem in the short term is,in the case of VR all of the roads we want to drive on are different sizes.  In the early days of cars we had one road and one basic type of car to fit on that road.  The hardware was fairly standard which was important to the pace of adoption. We didn’t need to worry about which configuration of the hardware was right, they were all basically the same which gave buyers the opportunity to only worry about what they wanted to do with it. That accelerated as a society our ability to learn to use it.

How fast do cars take off if every time you went somewhere and wanted to turn right, you had to wonder if that was the right type of street for the car you had? The horse starts looking good again in that scenario.  Cars would have still happened, it just would have taken longer. With the momentum building for consumer VR, and the hope and promise being served up, I am not sure how long we have to wait for this all to work out. Is there a tipping point for doubt to seep in? After all, VR has been a thing as recently as the 1990’s and many of the same promises were made. How long do we have, theoretically of course, before the scenarios that describe what happened before start looking relevant?

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
― Peter Pan

The excitement and potential fueling the rise of virtual reality has attracted some of the most talented engineers on the planet to work on new applications and implementations. Everyone in the VR world believes they can fly and because the ecosystems are so open and there is no established order there is even a feeling of a lack of competition that pervades no matter what you are working on. This adds a sense of weightlessness which intensifies the belief that there is nothing holding anyone back.

The closest thing anyone feels to competition is the clock. There are a thousand good ideas and a million people that want to be first to bring them to market.  Its a wide open world and most of us at least realize if you only get to experience that just once in your working life, then you have been very lucky.

With this in mind, it is easy to understand the temptation behind a concerted effort to have virtual reality sound like it is taking on characteristics that make it the tech version of Peter Pan. A childlike world where the product is constantly new and the magic never fades. In the case of the web or social or mobile, the other big waves of the last 20 years, for far too many developers it seemed like the technology got big before they really had a chance to dive in and be a part of the initial surge after major players like Facebook introduced products that invented and then took all the oxygen out of the category.

Virtual reality is different. It has gotten big before having a major product. This hasn’t really happened before on this scale.

It’s a time fueled by optimism, delight, and the chance to work with magic. The fact that any one of us can jump in and write our own story about what we think the future of the technology looks like has no doubt has allowed many of us to jump in and help build the industry with different and unique ideas. We have the faith and trust, and the show marches on as long as we all continue to bring our pixie dust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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