Consumer virtual reality (VR) is in the midst of a dizzying and exhilarating upswing. A new breed of systems, pioneered by Oculus and centered on head-worn displays with breakthrough quality, are minting believers — whether investors, developers, journalists, or early-adopting consumers. Major new hardware announcements and releases are occurring on a regular basis, game studios and production houses big and small are tossing their hats into the ring, and ambitious startups are getting funded to stake out many different application domains. Is it a boom, a bubble, or the birth of a new computing platform?

Underneath this fundamental quandary, there are many basic questions that remain unresolved: Which hardware and software platforms will dominate? What input and touch feedback technologies will prove themselves? What are the design and artistic principles in this medium? What role will standards play, who will develop them, and when? The list goes on.

For many of these questions, we’ll need to wait a bit longer for answers to emerge; like smartphones in 2007, we can only speculate about, say, the user interface conventions that will emerge as designers grapple with this new paradigm. But on other issues, there is some wisdom to be gleaned. After all, VR has been around for a long time, and there are some poor souls who have been working in the mines all along.

Over the last couple weeks, I quizzed one of these VR O.G.s, Tony Parisi, about the state of the ecosystem and community today. Tony has been working on virtual reality and related 3D technologies for decades. With Mark Pesce, he co-authored the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) spec in 1994; these days, he is a lecturer and leading thinker on VR, advisor to VR startups, and a key figure in the WebGL community. A long time O’Reilly author, his new book Learning Virtual Reality will be available this summer.

Here’s a lightly edited version of our chat:

Beau Cronin: As VR enters its most recent growth phase, I’ve noticed that there seem to be two schools of thought on how to maximize the chances for success in the consumer market. The first, which I associate with Oculus, is obsessed with delivering a high-quality experience — low latency, high resolution, and so on — and is willing to throttle the rate of adoption to meet these requirements. This crew is worried that disappointing VR experiences will result in yet another failure to launch in the consumer arena; on the flip side, they believe that the best VR solutions can deliver transformative experiences and generate rabid demand. There’s another school, centered around Google Cardboard and perhaps the new OSVR project, that are dedicated to getting VR devices and experiences into as many hands and onto as many faces as possible. These folks seem to view adoption numbers as the biggest hurdle, the thinking being that there can’t possibly be a consumer market for VR until people have headsets — so the most important thing is to make the devices as cheap and easy-to-get as possible.

This is a bit of a caricature, but I do think these two extremes are well represented in the community. Having lived through many of the failure modes yourself, I wonder how you think about this quality-vs-accessibility tradeoff?

Tony Parisi: The short answer is that I think we have to have some of both: well-produced, high-end experiences running on luxe hardware, and affordable, cheap headsets to get VR into more people’s’ hands more quickly. Without the high end, we won’t have the killer experiences that show the medium’s potential. Without the low end, VR won’t be affordable enough for mass production, both from the standpoint of consumer cost and development cost.

The specs on Oculus and Vive are creeping upward, which escalates the total ownership cost — it’s time to go out and buy that $4,000 PC and maybe renovate the family room to fit the computer, headset, and all the other peripherals — and also escalates the barriers to entry for building experiences. Before long, $1 million development budgets will be the norm, and that cost will also get passed back to the consumer. Long story short, high-end VR would get crushed under its own weight long before it hits mass-market size. On the low end, total cost of ownership is lovely: $20 for a drop-in viewer and you have access to loads of two-minute, snack-sized VR that is cheap enough to produce that developers can create free, free to play, $.99 and ad-supported VR all day long. Now, the danger at the low end is that it passes from novelty into fad, instead of into a must-have, transcendent part of our everyday experience. I personally think we need to come at this from both ends to fully explore the potential of this as a business. And if I had to bet on one, I would bet on something closer to the low end. Maybe not Cardboard, maybe a cheaper edition of Gear VR. But something affordable to consume and produce. That will get the market to bigger numbers, faster.

But now you’ve got me thinking (always dangerous), so please indulge me in a tangent.

I must say that for such a young field — counting in VR dog years only since Oculus was introduced — we already have a whole lot of inside baseball going on. Along with the Killer App myth, the Bad Content bugbear dominates industry conversation about how VR will or won’t cross the chasm. Palmer Luckey was quoted as saying that “really bad VR is the only thing that can kill off VR.” Panel moderators love to phrase this as a challenge question: “Will Bad VR Kill VR?”

Can bad content kill a medium? I’d like to answer the question with some more questions:

  1. Does the question imply that the very presence of bad content among other content, including big hits, would by itself impede the acceptance of VR? Or rather, are we talking about the absence of good content? If it’s the former, then let’s talk about the successful media out there: books, TV, games, movies, Internet. By this logic, given the continued success of these media, we must logically conclude that there are no bad books, no bad TV shows, no bad games, and no bad websites. Otherwise, those media would have died already. The very existence of YouTube is the counterexample.
  2. How do we define “bad VR?” If so, who gets to decide? And would any such subjective measures be applied as Terms of Service in some future VR App Store? Sorry, the content team at Oculus doesn’t like your VR, therefore your app has been rejected.
  3. Final thought on this one: I wonder if the techies currently in charge of framing the VR conversation are already setting up a fall guy just in case it doesn’t take off this time. “Don’t blame us! We made great hardware but it never took off because there was all this bad content.”

VR can’t be that great of a medium if a few bad experiences spoil the whole bunch.

BC: Fascinating. I guess my hope is that high-end VR is able to find enough of a market to support robust R&D — so that innovations in, say, eye tracking will eventually trickle down into cheaper hardware for the masses.

Regarding “bad VR,” I agree that the mere existence of crappy content — boring, ugly, what have you — really shouldn’t be an issue for VR any more than for other media. But unlike a crummy movie, poorly executed VR can make you physically ill — and I think there’s a real difference there. I have friends who have tried the DK2 exactly once, and aren’t going back any time soon. Maybe I’m off base, but I think this is what Palmer and others are worried about.

And I’ll steer clear of your last question (around preparing excuses in case of failure) — I haven’t been in this world nearly long enough myself to pass judgment on that front!

But I totally agree that the discussions around VR can be both insider-y and angst-y these days. My hunch, and hope, is that the conversations will blossom and grow in more interesting directions as folks with a little less baggage become involved in the field.

Aside from the platform and content quality questions, are there other remaining pitfalls you foresee that the community should be devoting more energy to avoiding? Are you concerned about platform fragmentation, for example?

TP: Platform fragmentation could be a huge issue. With the explosion of hardware, and an early proliferation of SDKs, we could see a lot of fragmentation.

However, I think the market will shake things out. In my experience — to paraphrase W.C. Fields — platforms are like martinis: two is too few, and three is too many. Developers will endure a couple of desktop operating systems (Windows and Mac), a couple of browsers (Firefox and Chrome these days), a couple of mobile OSes (iOS and Android), but they have zero appetite for a third. So, we’ll see development for Oculus and Cardboard but not much else. Maybe Vive gets in there to randomize things, and that will enjoy developer support for while — especially if Oculus continues to dither about delivery dates for the Rift. But other systems like OSVR have little chance of getting traction without some major other factor coming into play, e.g. Razer somehow sells a million of their headsets and changes the dynamics of the channel.

BC: You obviously care a lot about the growth and success of VR as a whole. And, given your last answer, you clearly don’t think that we need more hardware platforms. What do you think are the most exciting and meaningful areas for newcomers to contribute to? Should most people try their hand at producing content, or are there other gaps that need to be filled? What would be your pitch to a potential newcomer, and where would you point them to start?

TP: To me, there are many exciting areas for newcomers. Let me list just a few:

  1. Interaction design. We have an elephant in the room: input. We don’t yet have the “mouse of VR,” at least not in the sense of a widely used input device. GearVR made strides with the touch interface mounted on the side of the device, and we have motion controllers like Leap Motion and Sixense providing new ways to interact. But it’s still very early, and most of the interactions I have seen thus far are pretty crude. One exception is the Vive, which has an exceptional input system with two handheld motion controllers, and people are already using them with some success. In particular, check out TiltBrush on the Vive if you have a chance to get a demo. It’s MacPaint for VR! Must-see. Anyway, this is a green field both on the hardware and software side, and design as well — that is, figuring out how we interact with VR.
  2. Software frameworks. One size does not fit all. Unity3D is a great system, but if you’re not building games, it might not be a good fit. I’ve invested heavily in this area myself: I created a framework called GLAM (GL And Markup) that makes VR authoring as easy as creating Web pages. Literally, you use HTML markup and CSS to build your VR scenes, and program the interaction and behaviors in JavaScript! This is one of many ideas in that area.
  3. Content is also a wide open space. We have companies like Jaunt attempting to redefine moviemaking — a daunting task, but they’ll probably make some amazing strides here — and there is room for many more people to take a hand to it. Jaunt may occupy the high end, but expect to see guerrilla efforts to create interactive, stereo 360 video from real life. EleVR is making 360 videos for immersive talk shows, is creating a video system for live events such as concerts, and so on. And that’s just video. The possibilities for VR as a storytelling medium are endless, but we’ll need thoughtful folks working the problem for the next several years to see what’s possible.

BC: I feel a bit guilty even asking this last question, ripe as it is for navel-gazing, but: Why do you think this time is indeed different? Everyone talks about the enabling technologies (screens, sensors, processors), but I have a sense that “we” (in the largest sense) have also learned a lot about usability and design — basically, we’re a lot smarter now about how to build cool, compelling stuff with computers. Does that resonate with you, or is it something else?

TP: Here’s what’s different this time around:

  1. Speed
  2. Size
  3. Cost

Yeah, we’re better at designing and building software applications than we used to be. But that’s not the main breakthrough.

Also, consumer readiness is there. There’s a new generation of consumers who basically assume this is going to happen. The Millenials are the the inheritors of science fiction culture, and they want the Metaverse. But consumer demand by itself wouldn’t be enough.

I’ll extrapolate from my own experience here, but I believe that it applies to the situation. Growing up, I had a clear vision in my head of how Marvel’s X-Men comics would someday get made into film. This was long before the hit films of the late 90s. The experience I envisioned in my brain was pretty close to what Bryan Singer achieved on the screen 20 years later. Unfortunately, it took those 20 years before movie-making technology could actually bring it to life on the big screen in a way that didn’t look cheap and stupid. But it was worth the wait. Those films captured the original vision of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in a way that just wasn’t possible before; anything less would have been an injustice.

With VR, many of us have had visions bouncing around in our heads for years, but until the hardware was comfortable and cheap enough, and the software user-friendly enough to match these visions, it was just a mental exercise — and a frustrating one! Now, we have broken through the manufacturing barriers and are starting to build the sensibilities about designing the software. But it couldn’t have happened without everything getting faster, smaller, and cheaper.

Image on article and category pages by geralt on Pixabay, used under a CC0 Public Domain license.

This post is part of our investigation into Big Data and Artificial Intelligence: Intelligence Matters.