Headgear of the future past.

In 2001, a product was unveiled that had been described by John Doerr, one of the most successful and influential venture capitalists in technology, as “more important than the Internet” and he predicted that it would be the fastest company to achieve $1 billion in sales. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com claimed “cities will be built around this device”.

Any guesses?

The Segway.

By any measure, the Segway failed to live up to that hype.

Far from making a dent in the universe, it is rare to see a Segway in use by anybody other than tourists or mall cops.

When Google Glass was first launched, it was predicted that the future of computing had arrived, and that it would be the must-have consumer product in 2014. Google asked early adopters (“Google Explorers”) to tweet about what they would do with the product, in order to be chosen for the privilege of purchasing the product for $1500.

As a number of Google Explorers found out, wearing Glass allowed you to explore what it was like to become instantly and wildly unpopular, and even banned from some restaurants and bars for using it.

 I believe what those two failed product launches have in common is this: No matter how cool the product experience is, If using the product in public makes people want to punch the user in the face, it might not catch on.

So what to make of the hype about the coming wave of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) hardware that promise to transform the way we interact with media and the world around us? All of them show amazing promise and potential with varied approaches to technology and experiences. But still, with the exception of a few, what many of them have in common is succeeding in making the user look like a dork.

So does that mean they will fail? Mark Zuckerberg sure doesn’t seem to think so.

Last year, Facebook placed a $2 billion bet by acquiring Oculus (an early industry leader) that VR has a significant role in the future of computing, well beyond what up to then seemed like simply a cool new game peripheral.  “Immersive virtual and augmented reality will become a part of people’s everyday life,” Zuckerberg said. “History suggests there will be more platforms to come, and whoever builds and defines these, will shape the future and reap the benefits”.

Shorter term, he imagines a newsfeed where people don’t just share stories and  photos, they can share virtual experience. Instead of photos of a friend’s mountain climb, you can see what it was like to stand there at the summit, look in every direction, and look down to see how far they climbed.

In addition to Facebook’s 2016 release of their new Oculus product, other upcoming Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality products releases include Sony Project Morpheus, Samsung Gear, Microsoft HoloLens, Raser OSVR, Avegant Glyph, and Magic Leap. Google Cardboard provides users with ability turn any smart phone into a VR device, using a housing that costs less than $5.

Glyph and Magic Leap both address the dork factor of strapping a monitor to your face in a different way. They both beam images right on to the user’s retina, combining real world and virtual imagery. Previously, the only way to have that kind of hallucinatory experience was to ingest a substance that has the unpleasant side effect of causing the user to dance badly and enjoy jam band music.

While it is unlikely that we will be seeing the use of VR headgear in public anytime soon (we can only hope), there are plenty of opportunities where VR will take off in more private, business and institutional settings. Home entertainment, both with games and experiential applications, is an obvious application. But beyond entertainment there are uses being explored in education, engineering, the military, museums, scientific visualizations, construction, healthcare, travel, and real estate.

With so many hardware companies pouring marketing dollars into the creation of new platforms for digital experience, there will be high-demand for creators of content who can take advantage of the opportunities that 360º content holds.

As an agency, we always seek out new and compelling ways to communicate, to immerse the audience inside of a brand story, to create some magic.

Many times, creatives will start their problem solving by answering the question “what if?” With VR, we wonder what if instead of showing you a picture of a resort client’s beach, we let you take a walk there? What if instead of talking about the features of a car, you could see what it feels like to sit inside, look around, and go for a drive? What if our organic foods client offered customers an experience of looking around inside a living beehive? Recently, we produced a VR solution for a client where instead of telling the customers what the software solution did, we let the customers take an abstracted journey through their application solving a problem.

While it remains to be seen if VR is the future of computing, or simply a novel but geeky way to interact with certain types of content, it does offer a compelling new opportunity to connect people with shared experiences, explore worlds that don’t exist, and to tell stories in immersive ways never previously possible on a consumer scale. Bell Systems used to promise customers that Long Distance was “The Next Best Thing to Being There”. Thirty years later, VR technology hopes to close the gap on that promise even further.

  1. A 2-sense VR revolution (covering sight and heinrag) is already in progress thanks to Oculus Rift. The only problem now is that very few people have access to the device, but, once consumer version is out, everyone will gain access. A whole VR industry is about to be born. Soon after, a two panel solution for the Rift will give at least 4K resolution per eye, then 8K. This will be enabled by the parallel 4K and 8K infrastructure that is progressing nicely. All the pieces are falling into place already with 4K TVs, 4K tablets (panasonic), 4K cameras (RED, Sony), h.265 codec (same quality at half the bits), IGZO technology, OLED (contrast ~ realism) and advancements in computer graphics. By the 3rd iteration of this device, VR will be so convincing that it will cause people to crave remaining senses to be added to the simulation, which will trigger a rapidly growing support for BCI research. Until that support materializes, right now, real Matrix-like simulation is more than 10 years away, but if it does materialize, things could snowball from there and serious research investments into BCIs aimed at bringing Matrix-like simulation could be happening as early as 2014. Then, who knows. Depending on the hardness of the problem, it could be 2 or 20 years before researchers know how to send simulated, sensory signals to the brain, which will be the new holy grail of VR. But, I've already seen some research last year into carbon microthreads that could interface with single neurons so that's promising. My hope is for some early versions of this by 2020, assuming no AGI.

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