Virtual reality is like Senator Palpatine. One minute he’s alive and kicking. The next he’s dead. Then what do you know, he’s alive again.
Every year articles come out claiming that “VR is dead”. Meanwhile, developers and creators show off their latest virtual and augmented creations, share their hidden knowledge to unlocking a development step, and test the hardware to show us what we can do next.
I wondered, why do we keep seeing this disconnect? There are the VR/AR haters, the industry peeps, and the general public who don’t seem to notice what’s going on outside of their SnapChat and Instagram filters. These three groups combined could make an excellent market for immersive technology. Until then, immersive technology will be stuck in a cycle of being dead and alive.
The danger of the dead and alive cycle is that only corporations like Facebook who have resources to develop AR and VR will be left to define a whole industry and even our culture. It’s up to us, the consumers, to wake up from our filter fog and realize our influence on the tech of tomorrow.
What’s up with the haters?
Virtual reality is not a new technology. It was developed in the 1960’s. People have worked on it over the years. VR has ebbed and flowed as a capable technology. It wasn’t until 2016 that the hardware and software was able to come together to deliver consumer usable headsets in the form of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. This was the year considered to be “the birth of VR”.
Even as far back as 2016 people were saying augmented reality was 5 to 10 years out past usable virtual reality. Yet, we’re already getting articles of people being disappointed in augmented reality. Adario Strange at Next Reality News explains, “For many, AR and VR have been viewed as trivial distractions.”
In his article, Strange makes the comparison of AR and VR to magic. Our brains know there must be a reason why it works, they just can’t work out how. It’s easier to enjoy the illusion and magic of the technology instead of trying to understand the science behind it.
Augmented reality may just be an illusion: a glamorous SnapChat filter or new Instagram effect. There’s no need to understand the technology to feel that the magic is real. It’s right there on our phones. Point your camera and shoot. The friction is low. Strange believes this is the “kind of psychological disconnect that has plagued the rise of virtual reality, and now, rather predictably, augmented reality.”
Facebook has made it so easy to use their filters and apps that people might expect all augmented and virtual applications to come that way. Why go through the pain of learning to install games from floppy drives and CDs like we used too when we can plug and play?
Smart phones have set an impossibly high bar for AR and VR. Everything is connected and streamlined. There’s no reason to venture out and buy a VR headset when new and better ones are coming out each year. There’s especially no reason to when “industry experts” write about the failings and let downs of augmented and virtual reality.
“The problem now is that many people the general public relies on for guidance through the tricky frontier of emerging technology have allowed this “magic” disconnect to frame their still shaky grasp on a future that is, quite literally, impossible to grasp.”Adario Strange
For example, the BBC published an article January 10, 2020 titled, What went wrong with virtual reality? The BBC is one those companies who provide guidance without a full grasp of it themselves. The article is based on a VR arcade experience (outdated). While the, ‘”whole experience of being immersed in a compelling virtual world is incredible.”‘, the article quotes, Anna says she wouldn’t buy VR for home because it isn’t the quality she’s used to. I’m not sure what type of quality she’s used to at the arcade but this looks pretty good to me.
If the BBC is willing to recognize VR’s foothold in the medical field and group entertainment, then they can’t say the whole industry is dead because Google halted sales of Daydream VR. Daydream ran on a smartphone which is so 2016, just like their analysis of VR.
The BBC goes on to quote James Gautrey, ‘”Mass adoption remains impeded by the hardware required to run it, in my opinion. Take videogames – you need a very powerful PC, a good amount of space, sensors set up around it, and of course the VR helmet itself.”‘ No longer so with the Oculus Quest.
While one source claims VR is again, “dead”, another experiences a “magical disconnect” of their own, in the opposite direction.
PC Magazine declared that wired VR is a tech to dump in 2020. Will Greenwald, a senior consumer electronics analyst says, “Virtual reality is a huge pain.” He says, “The Oculus Quest proves that [tethered] isn’t necessary. So why are we seeing more tethered VR headsets?”
Facebook made a wire free headset so why should HTC and Valve even bother getting into the game? Maybe because the hardware limitations of Facebook’s Oculus Quest don’t allow for the high powered enterprise solutions on which HTC’s market is focused or the visuals that Valve’s Index hardcore gamers demand. If it really bothers Greenwald that much, buy a wireless adapter. Plus, if wires need to go, why would Facebook develop the link so people can connect the Quest to their computers for more powerful games?
People are still trying to figure out what augmented reality is. We’re figuring out what works for it. Augmented reality startups may come and go but isn’t that the magic of it? To those who work in the space, the people who design the filters, create the apps, and build the companies, AR is real. It’s not magic. It means something.
Unfortunately, Strange writes, “the consistent thread is that most of [the stories about AR and VR] hinge upon a contextual grasp that isn’t in line with the reality being experienced by those deeply devoted to exploring the software, hardware, and infrastructure dynamics of immersive computing.”
I think a great example of that are AR filters for SnapChat and Instagram. You can create your own filter and publish them to the platform. People from all over the world can then use the filter.
Content creator, Arno Partissimo, launched a filter on Instagram that tells people what Disney Princess they are. The filter works based on a random number generator, not on what the user’s features are. I wonder if people using the filter know that based on their reactions.
The original creators of VR thought of it as a completely new way to compute and design. They saw virtual reality as a way for people to understand and develop their own programs without code because of the three dimensional aspect of VR. It’s an interesting concept but hasn’t quite taken off that way (except for possibly Tiltbrush).
The magical disconnect isn’t just beetween the AR startups and the media who reviews them. Creators and users seem to be in different realities when it comes to these apps.
While XR enthusiasts share the “coolest new AR feature” on apps like Tik Tok, others question the apps morality in the face of online predators and pedophiles. Tik Tok isn’t the only app facing these questions of validity of use. Many social media sites including Facebook and their own WhatsApp have similar problems.
Maybe by supporting conscientious AR startups, we can build a future that doesn’t rely on AR ads to fuel the system and actively works against methods online predators employ against unsuspecting users.
The dangers of “VR is dead”
Articles about the death and disappointment of VR doesn’t only hurt consumers interested in supporting the technology, but it’s detrimental for the content developers we need to get into the space. AR and VR depends on hardware and software. We need startups and developers to make content to make getting a headset worth it.
The truth is, developing for AR and VR is hard. We’ve thought in two dimensional flat screen code for so long that we haven’t had the chance to develop in three dimensions. So people who say companies are failing, haven’t sold enough headsets, that they’re only selling out because they didn’t make enough in the first place – what is it really all saying? They’re selling. Headsets are selling, even if they’re not enough and not fast enough for the critics.
The dangers of articles like these is that they stifle the innovation and creativity that we need in augmented and virtual reality. Because if we squash the startups, either spiritually or financially, the only thing we’re left with are the giant corporations investing in the tech.
Mark Zuckerberg was interested in virtual reality for a long time. He came across Palmer Luckey who invented Oculus. Zuckerberg bought Oculus which morphed into the Rift, Go, and Quest. Facebook has taken over VR and locked down their systems to keep control. They want to get into augmented reality. They’re working on their own operating system. Facebook wants to create, build, and control it all.
Unfortunately, Facebook is an ads company at heart and they have a lot of problems when it comes to how they collect user data, treat people’s privacy, what kind of data they collect, and who they are sharing it with.
Facebook’s business practices are shady. In fact, so shady I deleted my Facebook account (and I’m not the only one). I’m not going to get an Oculus headset even though I think it would be really cool to experiment with Facebook’s content creator studio and live stream VR to Facebook. That would be fun to do. I think you can do a lot of neat stuff with that.
However, we have to make the choice who we’re going to live our lives by. Our smartphones aren’t going anywhere. AR and VR, no matter what people tell you, is not dead. We’re in the beginning of the magic but the magic is at risk of being manipulated. Being dark, Facebook magic.
Will AR startups have a chance to create something unique and valuable that we’ve never seen before or will they be gobbled up by the corporate giants?
I believe it’s up to us, the consumers, to decide. We get to decide who we support. Do we support the magic or do we support the dystopian future by mindlessly browsing Facebook? Will we go the route of The Circle that is everything Facebook and Google – off in these walled gardens that have access to all our data and all our actions?
Facebook is trying to come up with the words as we think them. So before we even decided what to say they start showing up on the screen. I guess Facebook is going to start thinking for us. Aren’t they already? They already mysteriously show ads for something you just mentioned.
It’s up to us, the every day people to be informed, to care a little, where our society is going. To me, AR and VR are way more than a new technology. They’re the future of marketing, how we interact with the world and one another. There are a lot of big questions that come with that: data, security, privacy. How immersive technology will influence our lives, how we think and act, and our culture as a whole that we have to consider.
We need to support this technology that is supposed to be magical and beautiful, and valuable. Not just let it be another gimmick for Facebook to collect our data. To me, that’s what it all comes down to.