The gateway to the Metaverse for the masses is widely thought to be Virtual Reality, with the promise of its lift-off always just around the corner.
Well, maybe it’s time for a reappraisal of whether we want VR at all. That at least is the polemic from David Karpf at Wired who asks if we’re ever going to start judging VR on its performance instead of its pedigree.
“VR is a bit like a rich white kid with famous parents,” Karpf contends. “It never stops failing upward, forever graded on a generous curve, always judged based on its ‘potential’ rather than its results.”
Karpf’s argument is that Silicon Valley tech leaders have been seduced by the sci-fi they read growing up. Snowcrash and Neuromancer are to blame, apparently, for inculcating an ambition in the young Mark Zuckerberg or anyone who invested in Magic Leap to create the immersive internet.
Zuckerberg recently told Facebook employees that over the next five years he expects to transition “from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
Yet as Wired observes, in the seven years since spending $2 billion on Oculus and upwards of $18 billion a year into an R&D lab, Facebook’s return on investment “have been pretty lackluster. The headsets are spiffier and the games are more lucrative, but our minds nevertheless remain collectively un-blown.”
Yet we — rather the media tech industry and a lot of its pundits — continue to get drawn into a hyper-digital fantasy future which will transform everything from employment to inequality.
There may be some grounding to this. The most surprising finding of a recent PwC report was that VR revenues were due to rocket (albeit from a low base over the next few years leaving all other media on the ground.
“The VR arms race is premised on an assumption that mass adoption is inevitable — the only question is when that future will arrive, and which company will get phenomenally wealthy when it does.”
One repeat argument from VR and AR practitioners is that the gear just needs modification — lighter, more comfortable, not-tethered, higher fidelity screens. When these come to pass, AR, VR, XR (Extended Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality) will take off, they say.
Yet right now, “VR’s technical problems have all basically been sorted out,” Karpf says. “The headsets are lightweight and affordable. As a technical matter, we could pretty much cobble together a 1.0 version of the Metaverse or the Oasis next week. VR’s limiting flaw might instead be on the demand side — the “Field of Dreams Fallacy,” which contends, “If you build it, they will come.”
Immersive VR gaming sounds neat, but it turns out that swinging a virtual sword gets tiring pretty quickly.
“It’s tempting to think that if Magic Leap didn’t live up to the hype, some other competitor surely will. But the underlying problem is that, there just aren’t many situations in your daily routine where the MR goggles would make it off the shelf.”
That’s the nagging problem. What is the killer app for VR? Will it ever have one? Perhaps it’s time to bust the hype cycle.
Of course, the rigs and goggles in five to ten years will be better than the ones we have today. The problem isn’t the technology — it’s the vision.
“The trouble with imagining the future through sci-fi action adventures is that it obscures the mundane everyday uses of technology.”
As if to prove the point made by Wired that VR/AR will find niche industrial/business not mass media usage, a blog at digital infrastructure company, Equinix illustrates the potential of emerging technologies to impact healthcare, logistics and retail e-commerce.
Chiaren Cushing, director of mobile services & IoT at Equinix, thinks that “AR and VR will become pervasive in our digitally dominated world… lives are being saved, manual tasks are being automated and shopping experiences are being enhanced.”
A team at Washington University in St. Louis created the Enhanced Electrophysiology Visualization and Interaction System (ELVIS) to help physicians visualize the interior of the heart during ablation procedures. ELVIS combines AR software with Microsoft’s HoloLens headset to convert commercially electroanatomic and catheter data into a 3D holographic image of the patient’s heart with real-time catheter locations.
“The physician optimizes the real-time visualization by gesturing to control the headset and move around the inside of 3D heart image — all while keeping hands sterile during the procedure,” Cushing writes.
Potential benefits include a decreased need for repeat procedures and reduced procedure duration, resulting in a projected savings of $370 million annually.
Other “real world” applications using AR and VR include apps and googles to help companies overcome logistical challenges, resulting in improved effectiveness and lower expenditures and Amazon’s launch of a hair salon in London which will use AR to show customers how their hair could look after using various products, which customers can then purchase via QR code.
“The emergence of AR and VR across an array of industries in widely diverse settings illustrates how our world is becoming increasingly data-dependent and interconnected,” says Cushing.
It may be part of the Metaverse, but it’s hardly the fun part.
Beyond gaming (and, I suppose, porn — there’s always porn), it isn’t clear what other thirsts Virtual Reality are meant to quench. Immersive virtual gatherings could be a slight step above endless Zoom meetings. But, after this pandemic year, does anyone really want their Zoom meetings to occupy more of their attention? VR enthusiasts often talk about virtual vacations to exotic locales — strap on a headset and you can experience a visit to the Grand Canyon with your family. But this misdiagnoses the whole point of a vacation. A VR trip to the Grand Canyon is not a vacation. It isn’t even a trip!
VR will surely be useful to fields like flight simulation, medical imaging, and architectural design — but that seems a lot less revolutionary once you realize that the first VR boom successfully broke into most of these industries thirty years ago. Magic Leap and Oculus for Business aren’t so much radically disrupting outdated industries as they are profitably upgrading the outdated VR systems for longstanding client bases.