I’m a technology cynic. Often, I simply can’t see the magic in the bottle that’s being advertised.
Sometimes I just get hung up on semantics. For example, a conversation around Microsoft’s HoloLens once degenerated over my annoyance that everyone was referring to it as “holographic”. It’s not — a hologram is a very specific type of technology. But I probably should be above getting infuriated over some marketing spin.
As a result, I now mostly stay out of the guessing game if I can. For example, if you queried me on the world of fitness trackers, I’d prefer not to venture an opinion. I can’t tell you if such trackers are destined for Apple-style greatness or not. Sure, one day we will all wear some sort of sensor in our clothing, but that’s an easy prediction. Someday cars will almost certainly also fly, but it doesn’t take insight to figure that out.
And one day, virtual reality will matter. But will that be now? Many are predicting 2016 as the year of VR. Against my better judgment, I’m throwing my hat in the ring: 2016 will be the year of VR disappointment.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: VR has many uses. And it’s not new. Ford has been using VR since the early 2000s to design cars . I have no doubt that some militaries with deep pockets are doing things with VR we can’t even fathom. Last year, I wrote about a company in Sandton that creates VR environments for mining houses to use in their planning. Even Google finally got the memo. VR will become a big deal in the business world.
But is VR something for the living room? I’m not convinced.
After all, what will you use it for?
You can play games, sure, and gaming is probably VR’s best chance to finding a toehold in homes. But even if we put aside the pricing issue, VR isn’t a team activity. You are on your own or at best joined by another player with a VR set. There is no audience participation, nobody cheering at your near-miss on the track, or how you just totally stomped the enemy in style. I’m not even going to draw comparisons to true party games, the ones where you convince your drunk friends that right now a karaoke game is a great idea.
Instead I expect many YouTube videos of VR goggle-wielding people being messed with by spectators. VR may create new experiences, but it isolates its participants as well.
For this same problem, we can disregard movies. Sure, if you are alone in bed and feel like an immersive experience (or trapped in an airplane seat), VR could be great. But a beer-and-pizza VR movie night sounds about as gimmicky as a silent disco — only the disco is a lot cheaper and at least you still make eye contact with others.
You could watch news footage, but would you want to? You could visit foreign places, perhaps experience climbing Everest. Yet such experiences will wear thin and it will quickly dawn on you that you have invested in an elaborate and expensive Google Street View experience. Yes, VR is far better than Street View, but moving around the Forbidden Palace in VR is still the same concept as skulking through it in Google Maps. You don’t exactly rush home for it.
Ah, but what about pornography, you ask? Well, hey, you go ahead and watch VR porn. Just be sure you lock the door. If VR porn gets anywhere, it will be on Google Cardboard or Samsung’s mobile-powered VR gear. Parents, if you bought your teenagers one of those, know that knocking on their door is no longer enough.
Seriously, VR porn sounds about as appealing as those seedy 1970s XXX theatres. So, no, I don’t see that taking off, at least not in a way that HTC or Oculus will want to boast about it in a press release.
The business world will adopt VR as it becomes more available. But companies aren’t early adopters: they don’t line up like Apple fanatics on launch day. There won’t be major VR trends in the enterprise space until 2017, or later.
I could see VR create a kind of arcade revival. The gaming grottos of old that you’d find tucked next to cinemas, where Street Fighter 2 seemed to be an eternal fixture — now that could be a VR haven. Instead of popping coins to bash your date’s inferior joystick-fu, you treat them to a walk among the dinosaurs.
That makes sense. Training with VR makes sense. Museum VR displays make sense. Sleeping face down on your desk while you are supposed to be paying attention in a virtual boardroom makes sense. But VR as the next big media experience for your home? Not so much.
Others have noted this as well, though some hedge their bets on a killer app: that piece of software that makes everyone sit up and pay attention. But to me the proposition of VR as a consumer device in the tradition of a smartphone, DVD player or even a gaming console is fundamentally flawed. At best it’s an isolated gaming experience (in the real world) and at worst an expensive ice-breaking gimmick for parties. I don’t see the mainstream value in that, unlike many of the technology’s evangelists.
This year will be a slow one for VR, because the consumer applications are actually highly niche and the system requirements so hefty that a PlayStation 4 is considered low end. It more likely to be that gadget you paid a lot for, but now sits on your shelf, gathering dust that only gets brushed off when you want to impress visitors.
- James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications
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