Virtual Reality: The Next Big Platform?

By August 19, 2014

There are two prevailing visions for the future of consumer technology: augmented reality and virtual reality.

Augmented reality is all about connecting to the current environment through sensors and contextual information.

Virtual reality is all about escaping to a completely different environment mostly for the purpose of entertainment. 

Two points I’d like to make with this comparison. One is that these two technologies are often mentioned in the same breath, but in reality couldn’t be more different. Two is that there is nothing fundamentally new about them. We have had the need to identify our environments and to escape to different worlds from the very beginning. The smartphone is the current flag-bearer for augmented reality, while the home entertainment system is the closest thing we currently have to virtual reality. **

Looking at the big picture, these are but stop-gap solutions. The ultimate evolution of mobile is perfect augmented reality, while the ultimate evolution of home entertainment systems is perfect virtual reality. We have already begun in that direction through two of the most futuristic devices we have today - Google Glass and Oculus Rift.

These trends have also quickly trickled into Asia, specifically China. I attended Techcrunch last week and I saw the respective champions from each side, an Oculus-like contraption for games called AntVR, and a software layer on top of Google Glass for asking directions called Chumen Wenwen.

Although they have similar form factors in that you wear them over your head, they have completely opposite use cases. One specializes in augmenting reality, while the other specializes in recreating it. One is concerned about maximizing interactions with the environment, while the other is focused on being as detached as possible. One is highly flexible and mobile, the other has a more well-defined use case. 

Having already established that mobile and VR have opposite use cases, can we still consider virtual reality to be the next big platform as Mark Zuckerberg stated?

One way to approach this is through the lens of good enough but portable vs. immersive but fixed. Most things that can be done on VR - watching TV, playing games - can also be done on mobile, except that they’re far less immersive. As we can see from comparing the much higher adoption levels of smartphones compared to tablets and PCs, many people are willing to trade a fully optimized experience for the sake of flexibility and portability.

On the other hand, activities that are optimal for mobile platforms like quick updates are impossible to do on a virtual reality platform. Mobile is just a much more versatile platform by default, and virtual reality can never top or succeed that. 

That’s not to say that it won’t play a big part in the future. It’s a new platform in the same vein that game consoles were a new platform back in the day, with its own rules. From a usage standpoint, virtual reality is TV plus, it’s desktop max, it’s game consoles on steroids. Virtual reality is most likely going to be the next big thing in the segment occupied by these devices.

Nevertheless, virtual reality should be treated as a completely new medium whose contents require levels of immersion and involvement higher than ever seen on any device. It is deliberate and high-friction, necessitating a willingness to be absorbed into a new world or an alternate reality.

Unlike mobile, this makes the platform inherently inflexible. Only certain contents can pass the virtual reality treatment and still be great. Textual contents, which make up most of the current internet world, would have to be counted out. Violent games like Grand Theft Auto or gory TV shows like Game of Thrones are fun to watch behind the glass of the screen, but can be too real to be entertaining in a virtual reality setting. Virtual reality contents have to strike the right balance that rewards users who take the time and effort to jump into a completely different environment.

Facebook is right that virtual social encounters is one of the best use cases of virtual reality, but if they expect this new platform to disrupt mobile or be anywhere close to its impact, then they’re dead wrong. 

**There are numerous activities in between the extremes of augmented reality and virtual reality, like reading articles, getting news, playing casual games. There are devices optimized for each of these content categories, but again mobile devices are good enough and portable enough to win out.

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