Confronting the “Is This the End?” Stories

Amazon dot toast.

51m967vm7gl
The Handspring Visor

That was the term one tech news writer used to describe the online retailer, way back in the twentieth century. I remember those years very well. For a couple of them I lived on First Hill, just a few blocks away from the Kozmo.com warehouse. This meant that I could order a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a DVD and have them delivered to my door in twenty minutes. The Matrix was in theaters and Fatboy Slim was churning out ear worms. I apprised on my upcoming meetings with a handheld device called a Handspring Visor. We seemed to be standing on the doorstep of a brilliant future of convenience and steady technological advancement. And we were, though first we had to go through a few disruptive adjustments and endure some years when the future looked a bit more dim.

51x35gxhw3l
The ePod

There was a company based in Belltown that produced something called an ePod, an Internet-browsing tablet. I applied for a job there and was turned down; a few months later the company folded.

I think of these companies and devices when I read stories about whether VR is doomed to fail. These days feel similar in many ways to February of 2001, when we had a new Republican president in the White House who many thought was just plain stupid. How quaint the criticism we aimed at W seems now.

Kozmo.com, the Handspring Visor, and the ePod went away, but the underlying desires they addressed are still with us, fulfilled by superior devices and services. Now we have Amazon Prime, the smart phone, the Kindle, and the tablet.

When the tech bubble burst in 2001, I was a copywriter at Drugstore.com, writing about Qtips, scented body lotion, and even dildos. After I lost that job in a sizable layoff I attended a job search seminar in which the presenter said, “The best job market of your life just ended.” What was an unemployed dildo writer to do?

The technology sector didn’t fold. It innovated. The failures didn’t portend doom for e-commerce, they taught the companies with real longevity how to get better. Webvan’s demise meant an opening for Amazon Fresh. The extinction of those ugly devices we carried in our pockets were a necessary step toward the iPhone.

As a novelist, I’m quite comfortable with rough drafts. When you write a novel, most of what you write, maybe 95%, gets thrown out. Early drafts are full of blind alleys and tangents, characters that end up getting axed, backstory that gets trimmed down in revision, whole plots that never see the light of day. The key to not going insane during revision is to not consider your discarded prose a waste of time. Every fifty words thrown out are necessary to get to the one word that stays.

What’s happening in VR now feels so much like 2001. The euphoric hype around the Rift, the Vive, and the Playstation VR has resolved into a low, ever-present grumble about the dearth of compelling content. Last week Daqri‘s announcement of layoffs sent a chill through the industry. The leak of a photo purporting to be a Magic Leap prototype, but which is apparently some unweildy testing equipment, drew scorn from the tech blogosphere. And there was some bad news for Oculus, as Facebook yanked demo stations from some 200 Best Buy stores.

Is this the beginning of the end? I’d argue, emphatically, no. This is the end of this particular beginning.

Again, I can’t help but compare what’s happening in the VR/AR industry to what happens when a writer starts the second draft. The first draft is full of excitement and possibility. In the most euphoric moments of a first draft, it’s easy to believe that your prose is so golden that all it’ll need is a couple tweaks here and there before it’s ready to be considered for a Pulitzer.

After the first draft you look at your novel in the light of day and realize with steadily increasing horror what a mess it is. I equate this stage to a hangover. Suddenly the thing you thought was so brilliant looks like a disgusting pile of trash. And you start questioning that earlier version of yourself, the writer who thought this was all brilliant. Was there something fundamentally wrong with that person? How could he possibly think this heap of grotesque sentences was any good?

What’s happening at that stage, I believe, is a reallocation of resources in the writer’s brain. The parts of your brain that produce the first draft are not the same parts of the brain that revise. During the first draft, the critical thinking parts are largely shut down. Those parts get activated when you start looking over what you’ve written. The feeling of nausea that comes along with this stage is actually a sign that you’re on track, that you’re engaging with the novel in a critical way and assessing the work that needs to be done.

Revision is a process of ongoing incremental improvement. Sometimes progress feels like inching along and gaining little ground. But these inches accumulate, and with persistence you end up with a work far superior to what you even imagined at the beginning of the process. The novel becomes more of itself and less of what you intended it to be. And at the end of this process, you look back on the writer who blithely assumed his first draft was spectacular, and you think, good thing I didn’t listen to that guy.

This is a year of revision for virtual and augmented reality. Some of the content that’s been percolating in studios is going to start to pop out and wow us. And more companies will lay off employees or shutter completely. It’s all going to be rocky and uncertain and necessary.

Seattle’s independent VR/AR community, which thrives on sharing ideas, is temperamentally equipped to help guide people to new opportunities when they need them. And as people go from one job to another, they’re going to bring their prior knowledge with them. I was laid off three times during the dotcom roller coaster years, and I learned so much by applying my skills in different contexts. This is how we grow smarter and stronger.

This year we’ll see many more “Is This the End of VR?” stories. We’ll be told that a particular platform failure portends doom for the entire industry. Or that disappointing numbers are making investors flee in droves, or that such-and-such company’s new device isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But I just don’t see VR/AR going away at all. These are adjustments–painful ones for the people involved, for sure–but they’re not signs of demise. As Mark Twain once famously quipped after a newspaper mistakenly ran his obituary, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”