Mobile virtual reality is the Ghost of Christmas Past
Lo and behold, we have the Samsung Gear VR as this Christmas’ must-have virtual reality toy. Virtual reality, nestled under your tree, for the low, low price of only $99 (plus the $500 Samsung smartphone you need to actually power the Gear VR headset).
The worlds of gaming, sports, live music, commerce, and adult entertainment are all primed for a revolutionary consumption shift with the advent of virtual reality. Fantasy shall become reality and a new age of immersive entertainment lies around the corner. Just as the world progressed from radio to television, so too shall it do so with virtual reality.
Whoa, whoa, hold up just a minute. We are a far ways off from the aforementioned VR Shangri-La with Samsung’s current VR headset though. This ‘VR’, dubbed ‘mobile VR’, relative to true VR, is like thinking of your car phone (brick phone), relative to today’s powerful smartphone. Gear VR allows us to sit front row at an NBA Warriors game or go backstage at a Nicki Minaj concert (thanks to content from NextVR and Jaunt) — but, it is a passive experience. Being able to move your head around does not make for much interaction and that’s all you can really do with the Gear VR. More importantly though, I could reach my hand out to high-five Stephen Curry, but Curry would just run right past me. I’m invisible...the people in this virtual world can neither see nor hear me. I’m Ebenezer Scrooge, floating alongside the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, through Dickens’ ethereal journey in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
While I am excited to show my family many Gear VR experiences this Christmas, Christmas 2016 is the real holiday to watch. The big pushes in consumer marketing from Oculus, Sony, and HTC will be coming then. We’ll have an install base of about 25m-35m Sony PlayStation 4’s and Sony’s VR headset, PlayStationVR, will have an avid and waiting fan base of gamers to buy it. Go to Best Buy, pick up a discounted Playstation 4 & VR headset, and plug it in…you’re good to go. Easy. Marketing the headset as a peripheral plug’n’play device is easier than the uphill battle Oculus and HTC-Valve may have ahead. That said, Oculus, HTC, and Sony have developed ‘true VR’ — i.e. games and content that allow the user to feel truly immersed, so far as they can interact with the world and other VR users around them — a stark difference to the largely passive experience offered by mobile VR to date.
While the VR experience from Oculus, Sony, and HTC-Valve VR headsets will be leagues ahead of that provided by the Gear VR, such headsets warrant another Scrooge analogy at this point. It is unlikely that the miserly Ebenezer would ever consider paying the non-trivial, $1,000 (or more) to buy an appropriate PC to run these advanced VR headsets. The high price point (and more technical user requirements for a PC based headset) presents an impediment to building and scaling an audience quickly. This means that any kind of ad-supported, free-to-play business models are a ways off as you need lots of eyeballs and players before you can make meaningful revenue as a content creator. A rich, easy-to-monetize content ecosystem, like that provided by Google and Apple on mobile, is necessary for the flywheel of content creation and consumption to spin faster and faster. In the near term, we will only see VR content funding from the headset manufacturers themselves and from brands who see VR as a way to look cool and edgy.
But for now, we have 360 degree videos. Yes, they provide for a more immersive viewing experience than watching your living room TV, it’s true. But you are stuck viewing the action from a fixed position. You can spin around on your office chair or stand up and turn around to get 360 degree views from where you’re seated, but try rolling forward. Things do not look quite like they should in real life, which is enough to shatter the illusion and immersion. John Carmack, chief technical officer at Oculus (a partner of Samsung’s on the creation of the Gear VR device and software ecosystem), stated that ‘positional tracking’ will be possible on future versions of the Gear VR. A chance to move around freely within replayed memories would be pretty cool. For example, imagine having free range of motion inside a family video replay, walking around your son or daughter’s birthday party video and seeing the look on everyone’s face, enjoying these memories in a whole new way.
True social and environmental interaction in VR will come from Oculus, HTC-Valve, and Sony. Oculus’ in house content team has tight links to the world’s largest social network through its parent company Facebook. Valve has deep gaming chops with hardcore PC gamers. And Sony has a long history of success in developing hit triple A games for its Playstation console. All of them stack up better than Samsung when it comes to making gamers happy. And gamers are usually some of the earliest adopters of new technology platforms so it is important to win them over at VR’s launch. The Xbox did well because of Halo and gamers await VR’s ‘Halo’ equivalent with bated breath. I frankly do not think that is going to come from a Samsung platform.
Expanding VR to the masses will take experiential demos at Best Buy and Target. It will require ladies of The View, hosts of Sports Center, and stars on YouTube and Snapchat to evangelize the hardware and platform. More importantly, if Google’s failed augmented reality headset, Glass, serves as any kind of example, you can partner with fashionistas such as Diane Von Furstenburg, have beautiful ad campaigns with beautiful models, et cetera, et cetera, but asking people to put something ‘techy’ on their face can be very weird. So, getting the hardware right is important. That means a design sense like that which Apple’s Jony Ive brings to technology products, making a device that is ergonomically and aesthetically beautiful. All the Madison Avenue ad dollars in the world cannot make VR cool if it follows Google Glass’ path. For example, photos of old tech guys in the shower, wearing Glass, did not exactly help market the device beyond its nerdy, Mountain View roots. And we really need folks to think this is for everyone — not just geeks!
The good news is that mass-pleasing sports, music, and games are all high on the roster for major VR headset manufacturers at launch. Oculus, HTC, and Sony are funding top tier content creators to stock digital store shelves with fun experiences, bundled up and ready-to-go on 2016’s ship date. Mobile VR is a great stepping stone to true VR, which in itself is a stepping stone to even more mass-pleasing platforms such as augmented reality (a discussion for another day).
In the mean time, enjoy your Gear VR this Christmas. Float through Victorian England with Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Just know that you too are a ghost in there, paralyzed from the neck down, and mute.
“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.” Wait until next year for that to change.
*This post was published on TechCrunch on 12/19/15*