Virtual Reality Check

Here’s a 2015 prediction for you: tiny pink elephants are not the answer.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been confronted repeatedly by an idea that I find oddly agitating. Here’s the idea (it’s a hypothesis, really):

Mobile is the future of digital, and virtual reality is the future of mobile.

The first part — that mobile is the future of digital—is about as uncontroversial as an overarching predictive statement can be. I buy it and I’m excited by it; I am definitively not agitated by it. But that second part has been gnawing at me.

It’s not my idea. It belongs to the Silicon Valley Zeitgeist. You can spot it in the hundreds of millions of investment dollars flooding virtual reality startups. You’ll read it in Benedict Evans’ state-of-mobile address (he points to Oculus and Magic Leap as harbingers of the new way of interacting with technology). And, on Dec 2nd at Ignition, John Doerr said it quite plainly when he announced that the end of the app era is nigh and then tantalizingly tossed out exactly one guess as to what’s next: “These things we carry around with us all day? They’re perfect little virtual reality surfaces.”

Well, that sucks

The explosion of mobile (both the tech and the always-on, always-with-us application) is unspeakably powerful. To wrap up its future in VR would be a real waste. Virtual reality, despite its significant cool factor, is entertainment 5.0. Books… cinema… cable tv… vines of Nash Grier… a tiny elephant floating in my hand!! (And, let’s be honest, we’ll get bored of the tiny elephant super fast and it will be the cast of Hunger Games part VII dancing around our living rooms).

Using the word “magical” in place of “cool” imbues VR with a certain transformative power, but beneath the marketing is a cold hard fact: virtual reality is simply a new content format.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with content; nothing wrong with entertainment. But, in 2014, the world is not exactly aching for a new content format. This cannot be the future of mobile.

Reality Reality

So here’s my plea: let’s not get so infatuated with virtual reality that we leave reality reality in the dust.

“Mobile” (and I’m using the term, sloppily, to include phones but also wearables and potentially all of the connected things they’ll talk to) unlocks something much more powerful than virtual reality. The thing that makes a mobile device fundamentally different from desktop is not the screen size; it’s the integration into real, non-digital life. We’re carrying around these always-on, sensor-equipped supercomputers. Hosain Rahman (CEO, Jawbone) describes our mobile devices as perfect little “context engines.” My desktop generally doesn’t know where I am, what I’m doing, or with whom I’m doing it. My phone almost always does… or at least can and will.

Take, for instance, a mobile map app. Maps is one of the most powerful and essential apps on my phone (and many other people’s phones, according to a devastatingly unscientific survey of homescreens). Maps is an old idea — ironically, a pre-mobile idea — but it takes advantage of mobile’s distinct opportunity beautifully. It leverages real life, contextual knowledge to create a fundamentally new and better experience. Another good example would be any decent fitness app. And yet another example would be the really awesome thing my team is building right now.*

These apps enhance real life. They are digital tools applied against something you’re doing in physical space. When done well, they actually get out of the way of real life. Having Google Maps on my phone makes it easier — and more likely — for me to do things with real humans in real spaces. The fact that my steps are being counted compels me to walk in the sun instead of hopping on a bus and burying my face in my phone.

And THAT should be our great aspiration.

And here’s my prediction: we’ll get this right. Smart people will build more and more amazing reality-reality products and we’ll fall in love more deeply than we have with virtual reality. We may spend an unholy number of hours per day tweeting, instagramming, Oculus-ing (?) etc... But our desire to do real life things in physical space—often with other real life people—is the most basic desire we have.

Mobile is the future of digital, and enabling real life experiences is future of mobile.

Is that an always-on sensor-equipped supercomputer in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?
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