Thoughts on Virtual Reality

on December 11, 2014

There are a few topics in consumer technology that are perennial, coming and going in the public consciousness and being periodically reinvented. One of those is virtual reality and, although I remember movies like Lawnmower Man and big promises for the technology over 20 years ago, this time it actually seems to be on the cusp of something big.

As with other members of the “around forever” club, the reason for its apparent readiness to finally catch on this time around comes down, to a great extent, to technology breakthroughs – the underlying tech is finally at the point where it can hit the critical sweet spot of functionality and affordability. Companies like Oculus VR have emerged to focus on recreating the technology for our current age and they’re taking advantage of various advancements that have happened in the last few years — since the last failed wave of VR tech.

One other thing that’s different this time around is the smartphone as an enabler, and especially as an enabler of personal, portable flavors of VR. The release this week of the Samsung Gear VR kit in retail stores is a major milestone. For just $200, ordinary users can now buy into a very real, highly functional form of virtual reality in a way they never could before. There are caveats, of course – not least that the kit only works with the right Note smartphones from Samsung. But as a proof of concept, it’s a compelling one. I had an opportunity to use an early version of the technology a few months back at a trade show and, even without headphones and in the middle of a noisy, busy trade show floor, I found the technology utterly immersive.

The apps and games were extremely limited and though some progress has been made, I’ve no doubt this will continue to be the case for a while, until such kits are available for mainstream phones which can justify developer investment. But it’s easy to imagine Gear VR equivalents built with other major devices from Samsung coming soon and similar kits for other devices won’t be far behind.

One big difference from previous rounds of virtual reality hype is there seems to be relatively little interest in using the platform to reinvent the movie watching experience — that’s a good thing. As 3D TV has shown, such attempts to deepen rather than merely enhance TV/movie watching tend to fall flat. The additional investment required to film content in these multi-dimensional ways simply doesn’t pay off and consumers don’t seem interested enough to invest in the devices needed to consume such content, not only because it often requires additional per-user purchases of equipment like glasses, even though only one TV might be needed.

This is one area where I think the new generation of VR taps into something big that’s happening with our entertainment consumption: we’re increasingly consuming content alone, rather than socially. More and more TV watching is now happening individually through devices such as tablets and smartphones, rather than collectively on the big screen. The same is true of gaming. Mobile devices have truly transformed social behavior around certain forms of entertainment and I believe this trend will only continue as mobile experiences become more immersive, something that began with bigger screens but will continue with VR. It remains to be seen whether people will want to use VR on the bus or subway (perhaps inducing two forms of motion sickness – virtual and real – at the same time), but I can easily imagine VR being used by gamers where they otherwise might have simply played a standard mobile game.

All of this taps into something I wrote about here a few months ago, in relation to future input, output and computing technology. VR was one of the topics I wrote about but it’s part of much broader development towards new ways of providing input, receiving output and processing all of it in the various devices we use. Just as a game controller is a new form of input for a mobile device, so VR will be a new form of both input and output. Facebook has obviously already made a huge investment in this technology with its acquisition of Oculus VR and Samsung seems to have decided to make an early start too, albeit through a partnership. Sony is the other major company directly investing in this, while Microsoft’s strategy, so far, seems less obvious. It’s not at all clear Apple plans to participate at all. I’m very curious to see how the other consumer technology powerhouses decide to participate in this trend. This time around (always a dangerous thing to say) I think it’s going to be big.