An Over-Priced Gimmick?

Chris Hegstrom posted a link on Facebook to this article by Erik Kain on Forbes titled “Virtual Reality is Just an Over-Priced Gimmick.” Kain contends that VR experiences are nausea-inducing, too expensive, involve too much equipment, and the games aren’t cool enough.

The VR industry is in its infancy. And like any infant, it is developing its immune system. I remember when my own kids were infants and toddlers, when dropping them off at daycare was like dropping them into a petri dish. They were sick all the time, and as a result I got sick all the time. While momentarily unpleasant, these illnesses had a purpose. They were the necessary step to develop a resistance to various bugs.

Are the various problems Kain presents insurmountable? Are they so severe that they’ll kill off VR for good? Or are they simply necessary problems that can be fixed? Remember, VR has been declared dead in the past, notably in the nineties, and it came roaring back. Kain’s criticisms aren’t, in themselves, incorrect, but I think his prognosis is. It’s like looking at an infant with a runny nose and telling the parents to start planning the funeral.

Here’s my point-by-point second opinion of Kain’s article.

VR headsets are expensive

Sure they are. I also remember when my dad owned a Texas Instruments calculator that cost over $1000 in 1980. People didn’t abandon calculators. Calculators got ridiculously cheap. We’re already seeing prices for VR devices go down. Moore’s Law seems to be holding steady. We can expect prices to drop.

VR headsets are really uncomfortable

They can be, sure. Industrial designers understand this. Headsets are already getting lighter. Nobody stopped wearing scuba goggles or ski goggles because they were too uncomfortable. When it comes to weight and the form-fitting factor, VR goggles and other kinds of goggles are essentially the same. I don’t hear of too many downhill skiiers kvetching about their goggles not being comfy enough.

VR can cause headaches and nausea

The first computer I ever used with any regularity was an early eighties Digital that had a monitor that seemed to have been designed to scorch one’s retinas. It had amber text on a black background, and the company soon designed a peripheral product, a screen that you put over the monitor, to cut down on how uncomfortable it was to gaze at that screen. Sort of like sunglasses for your computer. Scientists who understand things about eyeballs made computer monitors easier to look at, just as scientists who understand the vestibular system are now getting paid a lot of money by VR hardware companies to tackle comparable issues with headsets.

VR is a cable management nightmare

Wireless. Next point?

VR games haven’t justified their existence yet

One of the hit films of early cinema was called “Three American Beauties.” It was three shots, of a flower, a young lady, and an American flag. In 1906, people bought tickets to experience these fifty seconds of cinema. VR today is where cinema was in 1906.


In the past week I’ve watched 360 films and played VR games that were leaps ahead of what was being produced six months ago. If you simply stick a pin in the period we’re in and declare that games aren’t good enough, you might conclude that VR is doomed. But if you consider the trajectory, you might conclude that VR is going to be more influential than any medium we’ve ever created.

VR is obsessed with motion control

Kain undermines his own argument here by comparing the motion controllers of today to motion c0ntrollers of the past, like the Kinect. As Kain notes, motion controllers keep getting better. Case in point, the HTC Knuckles, which recently impressed VR pioneers like Ryan Smith and Eva Hoerth. Yesterday Ryan gave me a detailed analysis of what makes the Knuckles great and compared them to an Oculus Connect controller.

VR is far from immersive still

I agree with Kain’s point that there can be a gap between the marketing material for various games and experiences and what you actually see in the headset. But again, the idea that pixelization is an industry killer is akin, to steal Frank Zappa’s memorable phrase, to treating dandruff with decapitation.

VR is fueled by novelty

Everybody wants more sophisticated content. We already have mature industries–games and movies–against which VR experiences can be judged. And yes, there hasn’t yet been a VR experience that matches the technical sophistication of a modern blockbuster or AAA game. But consider the fact that devices have not even been on the market for a year yet. Compare that to the games that take years and teams of hundreds to design and build, and to movies with $100 million budgets, and of course VR experiences designed in coworking spaces by teams of two or three sleep-deprived developers are going to pale in comparison. But think about just how incredible these VR experiences already are, and imagine what will be possible with AAA game or movie budgets.

There’s not much content in VR

See above.

Verdict

As Mark Twain once quipped, in response to a newspaper printing his premature obituary, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I’m also reminded of what it was like in 1999 to sit in Amazon’s customer service floor and read articles about “Amazon.toast,” which predicted the quick demise of e-commerce. And we all know how that turned out, don’t we?