VR needs a hit

I believe virtual reality is going to be huge. Huge. …Eventually. But when? Are we talking years, or decades? I visited yet another VR festival this week, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that we’re still in the very early days of the medium. It’s amazing! It’s thrilling! And it’s still kind of the Stone Age. When do we get to discover bronze?

People talk about a “Cambrian explosion” of VR content over the next year or so. I sure hope so. Because there is a very plausible future in which a hard core of VR enthusiasts build systems and worlds that whet the appetite, tickle the interest, and fan the flame of true belief in a tiny minority — but spend a decade failing to break through to the larger population.

Most VR experiences so far are more curiosities than they are compelling. One exception, for me, was Leap Motion’s no-controller motion-tracking experience, which simply tracks your hands in real time such that you almost seamlessly, almost perfectly, wield them and use them in a virtual world. It doesn’t quite just work, but it’s close enough that the weightlessness of virtual objects is actually instinctively disconcerting.

Of course, on the other hand…

But write those caveats off as glitches fixed in the next generation, or the next. The question remains: what might the first real breakout, crossover VR hit be? When can we expect it? And how will it get to us?

The obvious answer is “games.” Unless you count Google’s Cardboard headsets — which on the one hand are popular, but on the other hand seem to tend to languish unused after brief experimentation — gamers are VR’s first major (consumer) target market. A compelling, you’ve-never-experienced-anything-like-this-before VR-only game / world would go a long way towards drawing in the proverbial masses.

VR gaming rigs are expensive, yes, but I predict capitalism will make its usual lemonade from that lemon, and we’ll soon see a rebirth of the arcade culture of the 1980s … except this time all the arcade gamers will be wearing headsets and gesticulating wildly at nothing in little pay-by-the-hour booths.

I suppose completeness compels me to mention another possibility for the VR killer app:

…and I suppose time will tell; but again, I’m talking about a crossover hit, one that stakes out territory in our collective cultural commons. (It helps that VR fiction like Ready Player Onea copy of which is issued to every Oculus Rift employee — has already built a bit of a bridgehead there.) Until we see one of those, VR will be like nuclear fusion: it is the future, sure, but it has been the future for decades, and it often feels like it will always be the future, never the present.

That future will not happen in a culturally meaningful way until better hardware, better software, and more creativity come together to create something new. Not an adaptation; not just a new dimension; but a game or experience that can only work in VR.

One so compelling that it drives ordinary people to use and buy VR hardware, rather than merely preaching to the choir of early adopters searching for content to justify the hardware they bought out of habit. One that spreads by word-of-mouth, until middle-aged couples who wouldn’t normally be caught dead in VR arcades find themselves lining up to try this hot new thing. One that inspires a censorious moral panic — you know you’ve really made it when you trigger a moral panic.

It’s a mug’s game to try to predict exactly when that will happen, or what it will be. But I think it’s a fairly sound prediction that (consumer) VR will languish as a minor curiosity appealing largely to a few die-hards — think Ingress compared to Pok√©mon Go — until it does.