Virtual Unreality

Virtual Reality sometimes feels like the boy who cried wolf. Doesn’t it feel like we have been talking about VR and its amazing potential forever? The $2 billion acquisition of Oculus by Facebook made the world take VR even more seriously. And I admit, I have not been immune from the hype. I’ve tried all the headsets. In most cases, I wore my eyeglasses, and the whole experience made me, well, unsteady. But I like new technologies — even the ones that make me literally throw up — and I remain enthusiastic about it.

This week, Oculus and Valve (the company behind the Steam gaming distribution platform) introduced two new VR headsets that generated a lot of attention. Unfortunately, buzz is suspect these days. News articles are full of excitement, but not enough caution. So, I called a handful of friends who are involved in VR to get their take on these new devices — many of whom have been using them for a while.

The consensus is basically that if a device requires you to be tethered to a PC, and if buyers have to get lighthouses and cameras installed to experience the VR, then it is really a non-starter. Something that fits this description — like the $999 Valve Index VR Headset — should be viewed as nothing more than a demonstration and development platform. You can never discount hardcore gamers, but it doesn’t feel like a mainstream product.

What about the Oculus Quest headset? It is a standalone headset — and more importantly, it is a significant improvement over the 2016 version of the Oculus device. It has six degrees of freedom for your hands and head, which means that the whole experience is a lot smoother and less likely to induce sickness. It is more affordable, more convenient, is easier to use and there is more content. Not surprisingly, Facebook is trying to position it as a media, gaming, and entertainment platform. Still, many of the people I talked to didn’t think it would take off.

Rachel Metz summed it up well over on CNN. “I didn’t get the sense from any of the many games and experiences I tried that this is the future that many of us want in our homes,” she said. “The headset is still too heavy, the controls not intuitive enough, and, despite the best efforts of Oculus and numerous outside developers, there’s no great reason to buy this thing.”

Sure it will sell a couple of units, but it will be about three to five years before the headsets go mainstream and sell as many as 50 million units a year. Those big numbers are going to result from a killer app. I would bet that the killer app for these head-mounted displays will be geared toward video consumption. Instead of buying massive screens, we will consume movies and entertainment in these special pods. Like I have said before, Apple would be smart to build one and connect it to the ever so powerful iPhone.

By the way, you need a Facebook account to play on Oculus, and you need to use their app store to buy or sell the content. I wonder if the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has something to say about yet another data lock-in being created by the company, giving it even more control over consumer privacy. By the way, if this works as a gaming platform, then Facebook’s cryptocurrency-based payment system will make perfect sense.

This first appeared on my May 5, 2019, weekly newsletter. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest.

A letter from Om

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