"The wine is more precious than the bottles." This has been observed by more than one person (myself included) to underscore the fact that in any medium, content is what it's all about, and the consumer's experience of that content is key. Hardware and software are essential for delivery, but the value proposition lies in the experience being conveyed.
While this is true of every medium, it is particularly pertinent to virtual reality as VR picks itself up from the mat in round three of what we hope will be the technology's winning bout (after failed attempts in the 1960's and 1990's). But for VR technology to gain traction, we must address the fact that most people don't really care about technology. People use technology to get things done. While certain tools are intrinsically satisfying to wield (hammers come to mind), the outcome is the raison d'etre for the utility. Lose sight of this, and you're dead on arrival to most consumers.
I recently had the opportunity to present Viveport's "Best Immersive Experience" award at the 2017 Vive Ecosystem Conference in Shenzhen, and to say a few words on VR. HTC has been doing a commendable job of promoting the "VR ecosystem” (as current efforts are wishfully called) and they seem to be mindful that the gaming sector will be a relatively small slice of the virtual pie down the road (as the latest Vive promotional video tacitly acknowledges).
VEC 2017 was an interesting event marked by insightful presentations from thought leaders such as VR trailblazer Tom Furness, and inspirational info from VR evangelists such as HTC's Alvin Wang Graylin, highlighting encouraging metrics and opportunities (though HTC should keep a keen eye on the unnamed competitor that suddenly ate 25% of China's HMD market share in 2016 Q4). There were also the inevitable eye-rollers: the official who misguidedly declared that "technology is the foundation" (compelling content is the foundation, as much as widget makers and investors might prefer otherwise), and the speaker who showed the "classroom of the future" with Vive-equipped students constrained to traditional seating arrangements (as opposed to on their feet in a free-range environment with untethered HMDs). It seems "The Uncanny Valley" can be out-dug by the "The Conventional Rut."
I do my best to determine The Most Important Thing in any endeavor and to keep my eye on that ball, understanding full well from my Disney days the danger of "vanity metrics" (numbers that look good and feel good but are ultimately no good). So, when I got onstage to make my remarks before presenting the "Best Immersive Experience" award (deservedly won by Hey VR's "Pray for Love"), I had a simple request for the audience:
"Raise your hand if you have a family member who uses VR every day."
In a room of hundreds, maybe a dozen hands went up. I asked the assembled VR enthusiasts to look around think about that for a moment. Had I made the same request of smart phones instead of VR, every hand would be raised. Not long ago, smart phones didn't exist, but now we can't live without them. Can we say the same of VR? Will we be able to say the same of VR in another year? In another five years? In another ten years? What will it take to achieve that?
It will take a few things...
- It will take the development of useful VR utilities and compelling VR content, not stunt apps promoted by over-caffeinated twenty-somethings convulsing in front of greenscreens. (The insight that revolutionary products don't come from focus groups has unfortunately promoted a culture of developer arrogance and laziness. Consumers may not articulate a specific solution, but they know what they want - and it's essential for anyone hoping to engage a market to understand what that is.)
- It will take technology that you can move freely in, without looking stupid in. Demo decks with images of distance-challenged couples gazing into each other's eyes as they enjoy dinner "together" in VR misrepresent the fact that your loved one's face will be obscured by the hardware equivalent of bondage gear (a prospect which may appeal to some people, but not to most).
- It will take technology with a setup procedure no more complex than putting on your eyeglasses. Call it lazy, call it whatever, but most people just can't be bothered with an "easy setup process" (which is usually only "easy" from the point of view of engineers and DIY geeks).
- It will take a compelling price point. This doesn't necessarily mean "cheap" (iPhones certainly aren't cheap) but it does mean a tipping point where the value proposition of the technology and the associated lifestyle benefit is worth the financial investment.
The problem in a nutshell is that high-end VR hardware manufacturers are approaching HMDs like desktop peripherals instead of focusing on the things that would enable you (and motivate you) to give up your smartphone for an HMD. When VR hardware companies cheer for cheaper, more powerful desktops, they betray an ass-backwards misreading of the market. We don't need "VR-ready" computers, we need "market-ready" VR.
So, as I noted to the VEC 2017 audience: if at VEC 2018 someone asks, "Raise your hand if you have a family member who uses VR every day," and we don't see a lot more hands up, we'll know that VR is in trouble as a consumer product and entertainment medium.
If you have a vested interest in the future of virtual reality, ask the folks you work with to raise their hands if they have a family member who uses a smart phone every day. Then ask them to keep their hands up if they have a family member who uses VR every day. Take note and pivot to get those hands up. Repeat this periodically until you're either successful or out of business.
It's the only VR metric that matters.