Do you wish you spent more time staring at screens? Do you wish you could strap screens to your face so you could stare at screens even more?
Good news! There's a great new technology revolution under way. It's called virtual reality, and supposedly it's the next big technology thing.
Facebook has invested massively in virtual reality with its Oculus product. Google is also investing in it, and Sony and others have products as well. Advocates say that virtual reality will go mainstream, we'll all live and work in VR pretty soon and that VR will change the world.
If this sounds familiar, then you remember Second Life. We're coming up on the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Second Life hype wave. SL doesn't require a headset like VR. It's a virtual world that you use on your PC. But it had all the hallmarks of the current round of VR hype -- the messianic, world-changing fervor.
Lots of Screens
Trying out a virtual reality roller coaster.
(Photo: Ray Le Maistre)
I was one of the people hyping Second Life. I was an enthusiastic supporter. And my experience, and eventual disappointment, leads me to skepticism that this time it's going to be any different, even if the technology is better and more immersive.
This week, three articles crossed my desk that fueled my VR skepticism. Oddly, two of them came from people who were actually advocating VR, but unwittingly made a case why it won't catch on.
The first article comes from journalist Wagner James Au (no relation -- though he is a friend): Virtual Second Thoughts. Like me, James advocated Second Life during the boom -- he was part of the team that launched it; unlike me, he's still active in SL.
James knows that SL is a niche, and he's skeptical that VR will ever become more than a niche product:
If you've noticed the incessant media coverage of virtual reality, you're probably wondering why so many companies are so enthusiastic about the technology, perplexed why you share little of their zeal, but vaguely fearful that you're missing out on the next great leap in the Internet's evolution.
I'm here to say you probably shouldn't worry. I should know: Ten years ago, I was a VR evangelist and entrepreneur. And I now hear the same effusive rhetoric, the same Silicon Valley boosterism, the same desperate rush to paddle onto an oncoming wave of hype. But we'll almost certainly wind up more or less back where we ended a decade ago -- with unfulfilled promises, squandered investments and another case study in Valley insularity.
James notes that tens of millions of people tried SL once but were intimidated by the confusing user experience and high hardware requirements. VR advocates say it will be different this time around.
Google aims to remedy the problem by making VR more affordable and relevant to users. Retailing for around $20, Google Cardboard, which allows you to turn your own panoramic shots into a (static) virtual world, is touted as a device that will popularize the technology. But judging by Google's own data, very few people who own Cardboard regularly use it. The New York Times's heavily promoted VR app? Also little used. On Internet message boards popular with gamers -- presumed to be virtual reality's biggest target market -- only a fraction express much enthusiasm for VR.
I have two Google Cardboards -- a $40 knockoff I bought as an impulse purchase on Amazon a couple of years ago, and another I picked up at the Google cloud conference last month. I haven't tried either of them yet. I just haven't gotten around to it.
Most of the new VR technology, like the highly anticipated Oculus Rift that started shipping last week, requires a bulky and expensive headset that literally blinds a user to the outside world. As a review in this newspaper put it: "After the novelty wears off, using the 1.5-pound headset is about as awkward as sleeping on an airplane." Nevertheless, VR headsets from HTC are due out this month and from Sony in October. Samsung's Gear VR has been available for months.
That's a huge obstacle -- wearing a thing on your head that blinds you to the rest of the world. Sure, when I imagine myself using VR, I imagine myself flying like a bird or cruising between the stars. And then I imagine what I'd actually be doing in that situation: Standing in my home office with my face and eyes covered, ignoring my wife and the real world around me. The dog, who hangs out in my home office all day, gets up, sniffs my hand, then sighs and lies back down again. I'm there, but not there.
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