December 5, 2017

“Game over for VR” says the Economist in convoluted Jeremiad

HTC Vive

A recent article in The Economist (1st December) has suggested that Virtual Reality may be heading for the knacker’s yard before it’s even over the second fence. They go on to suggest that consumers are opting for Augmented Reality as an alternative to VR!

They start off by pointing out that prices for VR hardware are falling since the items were first introduced – as if this phenomenon were something entirely new, rather than par for the course. They portray this not as a normal process for a slowly maturing technology, but rather as a sign of desperation in the industry.

“Virtual reality has failed to live up to its hype,” the article declares imperiously, “and mainstream consumers never really bought into the technology. Even ardent gaming fans have been slow to embrace VR.”

At bestvr.tech we have always maintained that the reason VR has been slow to catch on is precisely because it has been targeted to heavily at gamers and not enough on users. That is why we have been campaigning for so long for the virtual office.

But that is not the central thrust of the Economist’s argument. Nor have they taken the “cup is half full” approach and held out the hope that the slow uptake of VR will eventually be overcome by a breach of the floodgates. Instead, they predicted that Virtual Reality would go the way of 3D TV.

But part of the problem is surely that the bar was set too high for VR and too low for 3D TV. In the case of VR, it was decided, by the business powers-that-be, that it is not enough just to let people watch a video passively in immersive 3D. Instead, it must let them interact with the view as gamers, not only sitting on an armchair, but even on their feet! It must have head tracking, change the POV accordingly and even let them dance around the living room – instead of letting them do the sensible thing and go out of doors to play their sports out in the open with real people.

On the other hand, with TV, it was decided that it was too much for people to watch a 3D movie on a personal headset. No, they had to share the experience by watching it on a big screen. But to do that, they still needed special viewing glasses. These could either be “active”, opening and closing alternate eye-views (causing dizziness), or “passive”, based on vertically or horizontally polarized light.

Avegant Glyph

Avegant Glyph

If instead, the decision-makers had simply opted for the middle ground of passive viewing of 3D content via a personal headset, we’d be there already. Both the Royole Moon and the Avegant Glyph cater to this market.

Having said that, I would have to add the caveat that these products are wildly expensive – the Royole Moon especially – considering that they have no head-tracking, no body tracking and only limited interactivity. While this lack of excess features may give them broader market appeal, it should certainly not add to their prices. One does not pay more for fewer features!

Royole 3D Moon Virtual Mobile Theater-2

Royole 3D Moon Virtual Mobile Theater

But even in its own terms, the Economist article is clearly wrong. They say of VR that “the content has been underwhelming.” Yet there are over 1700 games and apps available for the HTC Vive and 2000+ for the Facebook (formerly Oculus) Rift. That doesn’t sound “underwhelming” to me!

The article also bitches about the expensive and voluminous hardware needed. But where is it written that great technology starts out in miniature? Great technology always starts off bulky and then slims down. Computers that once filled a room can now be balanced on the tip of your finger. Maybe it is just that expectations have grown faster than electronic components have shrunk!

Osmose Virtual Reality Headset -9

Surprisingly, the article that is so heavily “down” on Virtual Reality is surprisingly upbeat on Augmented Reality. Thus, they praise “last year’s overnight success of Pokémon Go” without considering that the “overnight success” was more like an overnight fad – a classic example of Peter Thiel’s dictum “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” writ large across the business-scape.

The fact that the Economist goes on to praise Pokémon Go for bringing “people closer together” and “promoting a powerful sense of community” says it all. George Orwell’s “two minutes hate” and the populist rallies that inspired it, also brought people together. That doesn’t make it useful in any positive way, let alone marketable in the long run.

They also haven’t considered how useless and impractical it is to hold up a small phone and stare at a small screen. As a passing fad it worked, but like the hoola-hoop, the pogo-stick and the space-hopper, that stimulating bounce – both the market and the physical variety – is soon dampened.

10-VR NEWSFEED - June 21 2017 - Applie iPhone 8 and VR Speculation

Of course, you don’t need a tiny phone screen for AR, notwithstanding Apple’s much hyped ARkit. There are AR glasses too. But their prices dwarf those of the VR headsets – and for even less utility and added value than current VR.

Of course, we need more content. And more will surely come. And of course, we need better hardware: smaller, lighter, higher resolution, bigger field of view, inside-out tracking with lower latency. And, most important: cheaper! But it is very much a chicken and egg question. Both more software and better hardware depend on the prospects of greater uptake. And greater uptake depends on lower prices, more titles and better user experience.

1_Vufine+ - 1

But don’t write VR off just yet. And don’t write off 3D TV either. Maybe the two technologies will converge. Not everyone wants to play. But most people – like Chance the gardener – like to watch. All we need is a high-resolution 3D video headset.

And the Royole Moon and Avegant Glyph are lighting the way. Now, about that price issue…

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