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.
Next Page: The 21st Century Hula Hoop
Does that sound attractive to you? Not to me. I already spend too much time staring at screens. Don't you? Doesn't everybody?
Indeed, I spent half a day trying out VR at various company offices in Silicon Valley, exercising my prerogative as a journalist to get to try the next new thing, researching an article that I swear I'm going to write any day now. It was fun, even impressive, but nothing that made me say I had to have the technology for myself right now.
Not a Bit Dorky
The author trying VR. A lot of fun, but not life-changing.
The second article comes from technology blogger Robert Scoble. He's a VR enthusiast -- matter of fact, he's "entrepreneur in residence" at Upload, a VR company -- as well as being a longtime tech blogger.
Scoble says: "Over the past two days I've talked to more than 1,500 people and only about eight in my audiences had purchased either an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Keep in mind these are rich people, VCs, execs, programmers, people who can afford to attend an expensive conference."
Scoble's experience proves that, even among the very rich who can afford to spend $1,500 on a VR rig the way you or I might buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, nobody's interested in spending the money. It proves there is very little demand for VR, even now in the early days, despite the hype.
At least, that's how I see it, and I think that's how any reasonable person would see it. Scoble disagrees. He sees all those people not interested in VR as opportunities.
The third article comes from tech journalist Greg Kumparak, who is helping build a VR test lab for TechCruch and "spent more time in a VR headset than anyone who isn't building VR stuff should have at this early point."
He recites a litany of problems with VR: Underwhelming games, neck strain from wearing the headset all day, a ring around your eyes and nose that persists when you take off the headset and, yes, isolation:
...using VR when you know someone else is home but not in the same room is... distracting. It can be hard to get the attention of someone when they're in VR, so I'm constantly expecting someone to tap my shoulder and scare the hell out of me. I keep my phone in my pocket and ask people to text me when they need my attention. If you're thinking, "Well, that's weird" -- yes, yes it is. There should probably be a better solution for this.
I'll let the dog know she should text me when she wants to play.
Kumparak isn't down on VR -- his article includes a litany of positives as well as the gripes. But still it leaves me feeling that this thing is going nowhere.
Or, to be precise: It will be a niche product. Like Second Life, which is still around, and profitable -- how many 17-year-old privately held tech startups can say that? -- and attracts about a million users worldwide. That's not the world-changing Google-class numbers predicted for virtual worlds during the boom, but it ain't a mom-and-pop bodega either.
Likewise, VR will find its niche, among gamers, people using it in simulations or telepresence, and enthusiasts willing to pay the financial and lifestyle costs of using the technology.
But VR won't be for everyone.
What does this mean to service providers? It means they don't need to rip-and-replace their networks to accommodate the bandwidth and latency requirements of VR apps. VR isn't the next big thing. It's a fad, like hoverboards.
But SPs shouldn't ignore VR either, because there are business opportunities even in a fad. Get in early, add luster to your reputation for developing innovative technologies and get out while it's still hot.
— Mitch Wagner, , West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading.