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Bull Session

Has virtual reality finally arrived?

June 18, 2015          

Episode Summary

Virtual reality headsets could be the next big thing for entertainment. A bevy of new product offerings from the Oculus Rift to the HTC Vive to Sony’s Project Morpheus, mean that there will be plenty of consumer choices when it comes to this new computing and communications device. But how, exactly, will this medium will fit into our online and offline lives? Product demonstrations so far have been severely limited. And no one knows exactly how much these things will cost.

In this episode of The Digital Life we take on the new virtual reality product craze from a user experience perspective — examining everything from the new social norms of virtual space to the practical realities of navigating your environment when you can’t see.

Jon:
Welcome to Episode 108 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon, what’s going on this week?

Jon:
Well, I thought maybe we could take the opportunity to talk about the latest rage in the future of computing and communication, and by that I mean the second coming of virtual reality. This time the format is these goggles that really look like S&M wear, for lack of a better descriptor.

Dirk:
Now, Jon, you know a lot about that but I don’t know much about that.

Jon:
Okay, so fair enough. They look like they’re blinding. People who are wearing them obviously look like they’re blind to the world, which they are, but they are very much present in this virtual environment. Sony has a version that’s coming out for their PlayStation 4 called Project Morpheus, which I’m sure has all sorts of Matrix implications. Then you’ve got the Oculus Rift, the $2 billion acquisition recently by Facebook, which has sort of started this buzz around virtual reality.

Then HTC has a product called, it’s spelled V-I-V-E, I don’t know if that’s Vive, or Vivè, but that’s coming out as well and I’m sure there’s a bunch of other products from Samsung and similar players. It really is this tidal wave of tech that’s cresting. Of course nobody has really announced how much these things are going to cost, and there have been limited product demos of the actual products, although there sure have been a lot of hype and a lot of video demonstrations and simulations. This has been a dream of the tech community for going on a couple decades now, where you could just walk into this virtual space. William Gibson sort of gave us some of the groundwork for that in his Neuromancer cyber punk, early sci-fi.

You go out into this virtual place where you can create these worlds and be a part of this reality that’s separate from ours. I guess my question is, number one, is that promise going to be realized with this current wave, and number two, what are the user experience implications of this? Because a bunch of people walking around with these things on, you think it’s bad when people are looking at their mobile phones right now. Wait until there’s a guy walking down the street with one of these on, walking in virtual Arlington or virtual Cambridge, right? I’m being a little facetious there, but what’s your take on those two aspects of virtual reality?

Dirk:
Sure. The first one is the easy one. Will this wave live up to all the promise? No, it certainly won’t. It’s a cool gadget. Where the technology is now it’s something where you use it once and it’s sort of amazing. I use it twice or three times and it starts to get stale. There’s a novelty aspect to where the technology is now. It’s cool that they’ve got it where it is, but beyond that there’s not a whole lot of there there. It’s tricky. We have in our five senses such high fidelity input devices, and the fidelity on these cutting edge virtual reality devices is just nowhere near that. It’s giving us a simulacra of something else in a way that is not at all maximizing the sensorial potential that we all have.

It’s interesting to a point and then at some point what’s the point? Because the technology can’t take us to places where the marketing would promise. Facebook’s big thing is that, oh they’re thinking way out. They’re way outside the box and these are teleportation devices. That is such hipster bullshit. I’m sorry. There might come a day when technology that’s down this kind of a path gets to a point where you could, it’s literally not a teleportation device, but you could market it that way because of the great high fidelity level that it brings two or more people together “in a virtual space,” but it’s nowhere near that now, nowhere near it at all. It’s interesting and I think there’s a place for it. There’s a product category for it, but it’s nowhere near where the hype and the marketing are whatsoever.

Jon:
Yeah. I think the follow on to that or an interesting follow on to that is looking at some of the other use cases for virtual reality, because we’ve spoken of a couple of them here so far, which is the gaming, which is escape and entertainment and becoming this character in another realm. Perhaps there’s always been a certain amount of tolerance for new technology and gaming. We can see how that’s evolved. Then you spoke of the communications aspect where two people show up in a virtual space and have some kind of interaction with each other.

To extend that further, we have a lot of digital health clients here at Involution. I could see that you could have virtual check-ups or that you could have … I know already there’s remote surgery platforms being developed, not saying that any of these headsets would be a part of those platforms, but you can sort of imagine the possibilities for enterprise grade or sort of expanded usage of this, which definitely tickles my imagination anyway. Dirk, do you think that those are just far-flung fantasies right now or are we seeing the beginning of an integration of the virtual and physical reality and we’re just at the very beginning?

Dirk:
No, I think they’re far-flung fantasies right now. You talk about surgery for example. We want a surgeon with this big, ungainly, heavy, odd thing on their head and physically manipulating someone’s body? That’s crazy. That’s just, it doesn’t make any sense. Yeah, we can dream and say, “Oh, there’s all these interesting things,” but does it really make sense to do those things with this big awkward thing strapped to us? I don’t think so. We can have giant monitors that push the same visual content to us. We an have other input devices for the audio and for the other things and still have our full range of motion and still have our full sense of being. I don’t even know if interesting is the right word to use, I’ll use interesting, even though I don’t find it personally interesting. The interesting thing that virtual reality allows is shutting out everything else and putting you into this world, but again it’s doing it at such a relatively low fidelity level even with these new latest and greatest devices. To me, I think there’s a place for it certainly.

I think the really exciting things will come farther in the future, but the generation that we’re at now, it’s going to live like a gaming console where it’s something you have at home, it’s something you have in a specific place, like gaming consoles used to be. It’s going to be kind of geeky. I read one of the articles that you forwarded to me about this, they were talking about protocol for using this. Someone was saying, “Yeah, if you’re the one without the headset, don’t be surprised if you get punched.” It’s your fault, basically. What the hell is that? This device is such that if somebody’s using it, everybody’s got to clear way the hell away or they’re going to get punched or kicked? That’s dumb. We’re coming at a time where we’re living in increasingly smaller domiciles, increasingly smaller spaces. We’re going to put this things on and have us gesticulating around and meeting protocols where we need five feet in every direction. It’s just stupid. It’s really dumb.

The idea that we’re going to walk around on the street with them? That’s completely idiotic. Google Glass was one of the things that sort of sunk that notion, was having that on your head, and that was really not intrusive at all. These things are horrible. I read one guy was saying the big concern is you have to worry about it being stolen because you’re lumbering around not paying attention to what’s around you with this big expensive thing on your head. Somebody rips it off and runs away. It’s just dumb. At the level that they’re trying to market it and tout it as something like a gaming device. As something an experiential device that people use in a limited, private context, okay. I can see that. Probably not for me, but I grock it and the technology’s going to just get better and better, so the potential of it I don’t think is as grand as they make it seem, but I think it’s the start of something that’s at least interesting and worthy of experimenting with.

Jon:
Yeah, so shifting gears a little bit, we can see where this technology is coming from with typical handset device makers and companies like that, but the Facebook play I think is interesting because Facebook’s primary revenue generating activity is in the social sphere. Now certainly they have a huge gaming component to that and lots of revenue from that, so I can see it from the gaming aspect. I wonder what the other plays are for Facebook going forward especially with their social network dominance. The reason I’m asking that is mainly because of that acquisition cost. I suppose a lot of that’s play money for Facebook. $2 billion seems like a lot to me, but do you have any sense of Facebook’s play in the long-term, since they’re clearly placing a bet on this technology?

Dirk:
Yeah, I think you pointed out with their business model being social and then going back to that teleportation quote. I think that quote is very telling about where they’re heading. They’re trying to head to where they can bring people together who aren’t physically proximate in these virtual spaces, which they’ll tout are as if they were sharing the same physical spaces. Again, I think for a lot of reasons that won’t fully be realized but yeah, I think it’s all about that. It’s getting to, “Hey, how can we use this device to ignore the physical boundaries between us and share something?” Potentially something interesting, right? You and I, we could be in different rooms. We strap on the big devices. They’ll get smaller over time, of course, and we’re in Hawaii together. That’s sort of the use case I would imagine. It sounds really interesting, but it’s got a really long way to go before the experience of being in Hawaii with a stupid thing strapped on your head is going to be anything proximate to acceptable so that you’d want to do it and lose yourself in it for half a day or more.

Jon:
Yeah. Facebook is such an interesting example because the social endorphin rush that you get from seeing what other people are up to and whether or not they’ve liked or commented. I could see the Oculus Rift reinforcing that, needing to get back into my virtual world where I have 500 friends and everybody’s liking my stuff. It just seems like a further divorcing of the person from as you said, the physical environment, which in some respects we’ve still got to work out the social norms for behavior just with the online networks we have now. I can tell you I’m not super happy being at dinner or something and then having someone check a mobile update or something like that. I still like the being in the same moment as the people you’re with, at least for part of the day. I think it would drive me nuts if people were starting to put on giant goggles to check out their social media updates and things like that.

Yeah, I don’t know how our culture is going to evolve in terms of our human interactions, but it’s going to get that much more complicated. They’ve sort of touched on the immediate ones, the obvious ones like, “Hey, give the guy some space,” like you were referring to, but it seems horrible that we need to figure out these other cultural interactions for people who are just basically becoming meat puppets, right? They’re there in the physical space with you, but they’re behaving in another, their mind is truly elsewhere. It sounds like hanging around with a slightly crazy person for the day. This is the kind of design questions and interaction questions that we’re going to have to deal with going forward as we introduce more and more digital technology that just separates us from the people we’re with physically.

Dirk:
Yeah. One direction they could take with it is like Second Life. If you’re young you might not even know what the hell Second Life is, but once upon a time ago, probably less than 10 years ago, it was this virtual world where you took on a different avatar and you walked around and built things and made things happen and it was all low fidelity. It was all pretty crumby, but for a period of time it was wildly popular. People really enjoyed inhabiting this avatar in this alternate world and something like that I think is prime in the use cases that Facebook will have, much more than the literal checking your Facebook account or something. I think it will be inhabiting different cells, different places. Just looking at the once upon a time popularity of Second Life, there certainly is a desire for that kind of thing, but it’s all going to get down to fidelity.

I would posit that Second Life’s petering out was that it is very low-fi. The avatar that you’re inhabiting, it’s a third person relationship, the world is not that rich. It’s just not that rich at the end of the day. How rich can they make these devices. Right now it’s not very. It should improve and improve and improve, and it’ll really be interesting when this intersects with the sex industry, because the sex industry is way ahead of the curve in terms of devices that are designed to generate physical pleasure virtually, having virtual sex and virtual things going on. If Facebook could even start to approximate those kind of things in non-sexual ways, they’ll be on the right track. Of course, assuming they go down a Second Life kind of path, they need to be open to sex being part of it because that sure as hell will drive a lot of use and adoption.

Jon:
Well, there’s the E3 Gaming Convention this week where there’s going to be a lot more buzz about virtual reality and some of the competitive products will be debuted so we can see what comes out this week at E3 and see if our predictions about all of the slightly awkward social interactions start to actually come true or not. Listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in thedigitalife and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links for pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show’s brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email at dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 108 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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Jon Follett
@jonfollett

Dirk Knemeyer
@dknemeyer

Credits

Co-Host & Producer

Jonathan Follett @jonfollett

Co-Host & Founder

Dirk Knemeyer @dknemeyer

Minister of Agit-Prop

Juhan Sonin @jsonin

Audio Engineer

Michael Hermes

Technical Support

Eric Benoit@ebenoit

Original Music

Ian Dorsch @iandorsch