Don’t get me wrong. I think this is absolutely the best consumer virtual reality headset ever made. It’s relatively lightweight, works great, and should usher in a widespread acknowledgement of VR as a viable media type. But the current device will be remembered as the Apple Newton of VR – the first break-through product, but unfortunately the first massive failure.
Why? For the same reason 3D glasses just didn’t make it at home. It’s simply too big, too bulky, too limited and too ugly to appeal to more than hard-core geeks.
Let’s face it. There are few things more ridiculous than someone jacked into an Oculus Rift, exploring their very own world. The outsized head gear makes you look like an alien playing pin the tail on the donkey. And when you’re deep into it, your head flops around like Shermy at a Peanuts dance party, hepped up on Special K. This is not attractive, people.
But it’s not just how utterly absurd you look when “rifting”. The device just isn’t transformational enough to replace how we currently navigate virtual worlds – primarily through game consoles and big-screen TVs.
Every new technology needs to have a net innovation score of Plus Two. In other words, it needs to deliver true substantial improvement on what’s come before on at least two separate dimensions. Take a step back somewhere, and you need three super breakthroughs. Two new limitations mean you need four “Ohmygawd” features. And so on and so forth.
Think about the TiVo for a minute. It was a marginal success, even though it contained three critical breakthroughs – pause live TV, random access to everything you’ve recorded, and the ability to schedule and group recordings days, weeks and months in advance. That was so far above both traditional linear television and the VCRs we used to use to record shows. Even better, you could actually skip commercials! Make that four breakthroughs.
Unfortunately it was (at least in the early days) horrifically hard to set up, and required a kludge (in most cases) for the TiVo to control your cable or satellite set top box. Net of 2. And the 30 second skip feature required a secret code to activate, which probably ended up giving it a 1.5
MP3 players went through the same growing pains. They crushed the Walkman by giving you random access to hundreds of hours of music, but unfortunately it was a pain to encode and load music on those early players. Plus they were bigger and more fragile than a portable cassette player. Digital music players didn’t truly win until Apple created iTunes (to make it easy to rip and load music), and combined a better interface, smaller form factor and longer battery life into the first iPod.
Oculus VR certainly provides an amazingly transformational experience. But that’s about it. On the downside, the device is bulky and hard to wear for a long time, image quality is far lower than our TVs, and you look like a dork when you wear it. Heck, there’s even a ghetto version invented by Google, called (and made out of) cardboard that slaps onto your phone and works almost as well.
So the Oculus is doomed – just like that other former darling of wearable computers, Google Glass. Whining of Glassholes aside, this product didn’t deliver enough utility to overwhelm its well documented limitations. But the biggest problem from my perspective was the lack of innovation. All Google did was miniaturize one of the biggest technology failures of 2002 – the Xybernaut Poma, which coincidentally anchored a massive stock fraud. How disappointing.
In the end, consumers will turn away from things that make them look goofy, including both the Oculus Rift and Google Glass. But there’s good news out there too, because both of these products – like the Apple Newton – have inspired a new group of developers who will solve these problems. And we’re beginning to see them in the wild.
First, Microsoft’s new HoloLens actually does what I thought Google Glass would. Instead of hijacking your field of view with a disconnected computer screen, the HoloLens layers the virtual world seamlessly on top of the real world. Now that’s a breakthrough. It’s a heads up display for the entire world, and I can easily see it linking together maps, LinkedIn data, Facebook, video games and a wide variety of contextually relevant images and data together as you walk and drive around the real world. Rather than isolating the virtual world into a stamp-sized screen, it layers and adds context to the places we already inhabit.
OK, on the downside it’s still clumsy and clunky – albeit less so than the Oculus. It’s ugly too – Glass is downright stylish by comparison. But by integrating virtual and actual into a sort of enhanced IRL (eIRL), the HoloLens lets you interact with others and the world around you while layering virtual creations on top. Microsoft’s experiment is where Oculus was three years ago, and it certainly won’t hit the market in its current form. But it’s a step in the right direction.
However, this week I was most impressed by a Kickstarter campaign – which I read about on TechnoBuffalo, of course – for a new company that has the potential to revolutionize virtual reality in a very different way. It’s a new projector from Immersis that turns an entire room into a virtual experience. It connects to your PC, projects a 180 degree image on your walls, and uses smart deformation technology, called “anamorphosis” to adjust the image to look great across whatever shape your walls are in.
It looks like the projector will be available later this year for under $3,000. I can only imagine what it’ll be like when you chain two of them together to get a real 360 degree image that creates a truly immersive experience. I can’t wait to see that – because in the end that’s how you create truly immersive, dork-free virtual reality.
The rise of big screen TVs and gaming consoles created a new space in homes around the world, as Media Rooms started replacing the Library. Within the next 10 years, the VR room will do the same to the Media Room. Imagine a domed room, with a projector in the middle – or perhaps even a flexible pixel fabric stretched across the walls. Step into the room and you’re transported to anywhere, anytime, or any story. From simply hanging out with friends from around the world – ala the holographic rooms in Issac Asimov’s book “The Caves of Steel”, to truly immersive video games, movies and other experiences, this will be how we finally enjoy virtual reality at home by ourselves and with others. And as that happens, the Oculus will fade into the background. It’ll be seen as a breakthrough device, but ultimately just a stepping stone to the VR rooms of the next decade.