Business Technology

Friday 21 September 2018

Adrian Weckler: Zuck maintains VR still the future

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

For a couple of years, we've been told that virtual reality is the next big thing in technology. But it hasn't exactly taken over the world. Many ordinary people, while curious about what VR feels like, don't yet see a role for VR in their lives.

Sales have reflected this. Despite global hype and several major companies pushing the technology, no more than about two million VR headsets were sold last year, with cheap €99 phone accessories taking the lion's share of unit sales.

Even hardcore gamers, thought to be the most likely early adopters, are slow to take to the platform.

This has led to some analysts questioning the credentials of virtual reality as a genuine contender.

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg was having none of it.

The Facebook founder, who bought VR firm Oculus for €2bn in 2014, has previously declared virtual reality to be "the next big platform".

At the company's annual Oculus developer conference in San Jose, he dismissed some of the criticisms levied at virtual reality.

"People say VR is isolating and anti-social," he told a crowd of developers and journalists, including your correspondent. "I actually think it's the opposite. Saying VR is isolating because it's immersive is a very narrow view of the world you're all building."

This is a pretty challenging assertion. One of the main adoption problems that VR faces is exactly this issue of social separation. To use VR at present is to don a large headset, likely with headphones, as an escape from your immediate surroundings. Once on, the VR headset doesn't give you much of a chance to keep interacting with the real world.

It's a pretty unmistakeable act of cutting yourself off. You're not open to conversation or serendipitous social opportunity around you.

And this is a weird thing for a lot of ordinary people.

"Yes, but you might say the same about your phone," Hugo Barra, Facebook's vice-president for VR said to me last week in an interview. "Look how many people hold it in front of them, focused on it."

That's completely right. But there's a crucial difference in that your phone while distracting, still affords you the opportunity to be somewhat cognisant of what's going on around you.

It's possible to watch a video and still keep an eye out for when your own bus stop is upcoming. Indeed, people now even walk along a path with a phone and survive.

But to use VR is a much bigger commitment away from your actual presence and into something completely separate.

These are not new reservations about VR and it is always easy to doubt the compatibility of new technologies by pointing to flaws based in present-day usage and behaviours.

But they nag at the technology's everyday appeal as a putative universal platform.

So is there still a glistening future for VR, as promulgated by Zuckerberg and other evangelists?

Maybe. The technology is still very young. Oculus, which Facebook bought three years ago, is still only five years old. Sony and HTC, Facebook's main competitors in advanced virtual reality kits, have also only been at it for a couple of years.

In that time, some genuine strides have been made. Last week, for example, Facebook showed off its future model, called Project Santa Cruz. It's a wireless headset that seems almost to match the power and fluidity of current high-end (tethered) VR systems on PCs.

I tried two games on it and was fairly blown away by the freedom that not being cabled to a physical computer afforded me.

And this goes to why virtual reality's believers aren't still so steadfast in their faith: it is actually quite amazing once you enter its portal.

For those who have never tried a full-powered VR system, it is a sensation that utterly fools one's senses into a belief of being somewhere else, doing something else.

Some big companies are impressed enough to back its adoption. These include entities as diverse as Pixar, which is soon releasing an animated piece of content called Coco VR, and Audi, which is rolling out the technology in showrooms for the benefit of customers who want to 'see' what customised fit-outs look like.

There are also tentative moves among some health and education authorities, deploying VR systems to help patients escape difficult daily routines or helping students to explore to learn about complex medical procedures.

There are even efforts to include VR gaming installations in old-fashioned arcades as a way for the technology to gain traction in public spaces. If it's part of a set-piece entertainment experience, people are more likely to try it, as the argument goes.

But these are all exceptions, experimental rollouts. At that current adoption rate, virtual reality could yet take years to reach anything like mass market penetration.

Facebook knows this, but is still behind a goal of attracting one billion people to the platform in the coming years.

So it appears to be upping the amount of money it's prepared to invest in the ecosystem, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Last week, it cut the price of its Oculus Rift from €649 to €449, almost certainly deepening the subsidy for the nascent hardware kit. This isn't a new strategy, with Sony and Microsoft taking losses for years on their PlayStation and Xbox hardware systems to try and drive take up of the systems. But it does make it a bigger bet for the company.

To be fair, the tech giant doesn't have a bad record so far in sniffing out what might likely dominate our lives in the near future. Quite apart from its own two billion-strong primary service, its purchases of Instagram ($3bn) and WhatsApp ($18bn) some years back now look like amazingly canny long term investments.

But if virtual reality is to accelerate into our lives any time soon, Facebook may need to draw on its deep pockets to push take-up harder.

Sunday Indo Business

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