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Facebook and Oculus Rift and Doing the Wall E Future

It has been over 3 years since Facebook purchased the current big name in VR, Oculus VR, who make the Oculus Rift headsets. My experience with VR has been limited to Google Cardboard, which is a decent approximation of what to expect from actual VR. Of course, I still have that Google Cardboard thing, but after the initial few hours, I never used it.

The VR makes us (the user) part of the action, to the extent that video and audio can. This is in contrast with a regular movie or TV. The fourth wall is strictly in front you, and clearly defined. With VR you are inside the four walls, and that means, you can look around and depending on the technology (and the capability of the technology used to develop the VR media, interact and perhaps even change the virtual reality world. VR will put you in the driver’s seat of a formula 1 car for instance, or make you one of the characters in a movie or allow you to roam around in a (virtual) Jurassic park with huge dinosaurs and totally insecure and untested security systems that are designed ensure that all humans will die once these beasts escape from their cages.

Now, that’s VR.

Then there is Facebook. At it’s core Facebook is essentially a place to share media (photos, videos, links and of course text) and allow others to interact with it. It plays on the essential human instinct to show the world what you are, and just may be, tell them that you are doing something they are not. Essentially, it’s an ego feeding machine that also has some peripheral uses like networking and business development and (actually) keeping in touch with people we care about.

So, why would Facebook bother having Oculus as on of its subsidiary? It is essential to understand that Facebook has always been a platform to get things done. It’s like the operating system that powers your phone or PC. It’s like a (virtual) home or house in which you live. If your Facebook account is your house (filled with memories, the joys and sorrows, the events and milestones and all things that cover), the interesting thing is that you cannot live in it. You are essentially operating from outside the fourth wall. It’s like when you go to the zoo. Sure you paid for the ticket and you are here to see the Lion but you cannot go and roam around with the Lions or pat them or take selfies with them.

I think the idea here for Facebook is to break that fourth wall and put you in the middle of your facebook account, which is by default your digital home. I am sure that VR is at least 5 years away from becoming mainstream. I wrote about the many problems with VR in an earlier blog post. Many of the problems I talked about earlier are solvable. They are mostly engineering issues (like processing power, displays, battery capacity, user comfort) which will be fixed because the march of technology does not stop for anybody. People (and the world is filled with people who are constantly coming up with innovative solutions) will always figure things out.

While talking about VR, its hard not to think of the quick growth and death of 3D. I think what killed 3D was the same thing that killed 3D 30 years ago, as well. The lack of content. Imagine you buy a food processor that makes fantastic fruit juice in like 5 seconds. Unfortunately, lets imagine a scenario where you live in a time and world where it is impossible to get fruits. You want to use your processor but there is no way to get fruits. The television companies were selling 3D television sets like they were the next greatest thing for the living room but other than promotional videos, there was literally nothing else that was available in 3D. Streaming companies never really embraced 3D in a big way. User generated content also never happened. So, every possible producer of 3D video declined to generate 3D video. There was no supply, and there was no consumption and by default, there was no demand for 3D hardware. Everything just fizzled out. It’s Economics 101.

This time though, I have a feeling that perhaps VR medium will grow. If Facebook gets it right and figures out a way to convert the trillions of GB of data it is sitting into a VR format (and ensures that users don’t have to jump through hoops to create VR content for consumption), supply is ensured. Once there is a steady supply, consumption will happen and demand for VR devices will grow. This will circle itself into the expected never ending cycle that will lead to mainstream VR adoption, lower prices, easier access and stuff like that. Obviously adult entertainment (as it has done with VHS tapes, streaming media and Blu Ray adoption) and gaming entertainment have a big role to play in this.

My job allows me to interact a lot of people (like 1000s every year) and each year I notice that the younger generation is becoming more and more digital social, less and less real life social. Obviously there are some serious negative consequences in the long term because of this, but I don’t see how this can communicated. As we consume more and more digital services, and use digital tools for everyday communication, I can see that people will embrace VR as part of their lives. Mostly because they don’t have a choice, but sometimes because they really want to.

Eventually (perhaps even in our own lifetimes) we might see some version of the life depicted in Wall E. You know people just sitting on chairs and everything being done for them, and happening from where they sit. Hopefully, at least some people will get up and get things done. Or, we might have to abandon our planet, just like in Wall E.

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Some issues with VR

Tech companies have no choice but to keep innovating if they wish to keep their stock price. Even Apple, the company that makes more than Microsoft and Google put together, is finding it hard to innovate. In fact, all their heavy hitters – iPhone and iPad – were released a long time ago. In fact, Apple does not innovate at all these days (I am not including incremental innovation). Heck, Microsoft – a company known for using same old same old stuff – is getting busy with cool stuff like Hololens. Google is always doing something.  

That brings us to VR. Now that other things are tapped out, they had to do something new to keep things alive. For me, personally, the VR thing is awesome. Of course, at current prices (2000 dollars) I cannot afford true VR experiences such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Just to put that into perspective, that’s one lakh and thirty four thousand rupees. Of course, that is just straight up conversion. If those two devices ever come to India, I expect the price to be at least 2 lakh rupees with taxes and what not 

Some may balk at the 2 lakh figure, but just look at the asking price of Xbox One. In US, it is possible to get Xbox One bundle at 300 dollars which is roughly 20000 rupees. However, the actual retail price for Xbox One here is 35000 rupees. That's 520 dollars for you. That's taxes and other stuff work. So yes, I am pretty sure that VR gear will cost upwards of 2 lakh here.  

The problems though, are not just about cost. Although, you can see how it is already a huge issue.  

For me, my only VR experience has been Google Cardboard. Even that needs special hardware to be on the phone (like Gyroscope, which is not really there on every mobile) to work to full effect. The few videos that I have watched, and games that I have played, truly do feel real. It's like the first time I watched Avatar. It is just awesome. I ended up watching Avatar like 2 dozen times at the movies. However, the VR experience, while awesome is not something I wish to revisit often.  

For one thing, the current VR experiences aren't really interactive. At best, they are like a slideshow. It's fun for a few minutes and then, you keep wondering, why are you even wearing this VR thing. The longest I have used VR is may be 10 minutes. Although the experience is awesome, what happens after a few minutes is the real deal. And pain.  

Pain it definitely is. Wearing the VR device means, supporting a heavy phone on your nose. Phones weight less these days but 150 grams plus the VR (another 50 grams) become 200 grams. 200 grams hanging by your nose (which is designed to not carry any weight which is why spectacles pride on being lightweight) is not cool at all. It hurts and it pains a lot. 

Also, there is the problem of raccoon eyes kind of look that comes when you wear too much VR.  As with any screen based experience, VR works by pushing light towards the eyes. With non-VR media, your eyes are usually far away from the source. In a movie theater, the screen is far off. When you are watching video on YouTube, your screen is still a few minutes away from your eyes. In VR, it's right there in front of you. It hurts your eyes. It really does.  

Essentially, the whole experience is painful. Also, actually wearing the VR thing is a bit of challenge. For instance, folks who have short hair wear it fairly easily. Also, when I offered women and girls to wear VR, they refused because they did not want to ruin their hairstyle. Then, there are others who refused to wear it because they thought, they looked like idiots if they wore it. They also felt a little scared because they had no idea what was happening outside (when they are in the VR world) world and they cannot be like that for extended duration.  

For me, this seems like the 3D innovation that companies tried to push (and then eventually give up) a while ago. Why did the 3D revolution (if there was ever one) fail with home entertainment. I can think of a few reasons. First, you had to wear glasses, and people flat out hate glasses. There is no other way to put it. Then, there was line of sight. 3D works at few angles for best results. Lastly, content. 3D content is simply not there. Even at the movies, if a given movie is available in both 3D and 2D, I almost always prefer 2D. Overzealous movie studios (I am looking at you Marvel) simply push for 3D without really knowing if it makes sense or not. 

Right now, I kind of feel like VR is going to be like that 3D thing. There are issues with comfort and there are issues with content. On top of this, the asking price is crazy. Even with cheap experiences like Google Cardboard, I cannot bear with the comfort problem or the content problem. The way VR is right now, I really don’t want to touch.  

That being said (of course there is a but :P) I see VR never going mainstream (like smartphones or television or gaming consoles). I cannot imagine an entire family wearing these thick headsets on a couch and enjoying something like that.  

I do see VR making sense where remote experiences are concerned. I draw a parallel with online services. Take food for instance. Although my home does not have a kitchen (meaning its not equipped with kitchen items) I get to nice and hot food every night. This is made possible due to a combination of app and delivery systems. I no longer have to schlep myself to a restaurant, wait, eat, pay and do all that. I can focus on the eat part and save on everything else.  

Similarly, VR might finally make something better. What if my food app offerred a VR experience with virtual avatars? Perhaps, I could find myself in front of the chef (real or virtual) at the restaurant. Talk to him as I pick the menu from a virtual surround display of food items. How cool would that be. Maybe, while I am picking the items, I can engage in some chit chat. What if I am ordering food for two? My friend is still in the cab. I ask her to join in (via her own virtual avatar) and we both pick our food from the menu.  

This is where I think VR could work. Instance where's virtual reality makes sense. It also solves many VR problems. I might not want to watch an entire movie in VR but I don’t mind wearing it long enough to place an order. Content is not a problem because I mostly wish to see a menu, and I don’t want to entertained or anything. For instance, I don’t open Uber or Ola to be entertained. I just want to get work done.  

A few years from now (or even months if apps begin to embrace VR) I fully expect to interact with the services I use everyday. Instead of chatting or tapping, I expect my virtual avatar to do stuff for me. Its just a matter of waiting for that to happen. Of course, the scenario I am speaking about works with cheap VR solutions like Cardboard and Gear VR.  

The scenario with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, is kind of tricky. Their asking price is so much, and asking computing power is also pretty high. Reminds of those times when computers occupied entire rooms. Incidentally, Rift and Vive are also asking for entire rooms for a good VR experience. As with the computers that shrunk from a room to our pockets, perhaps some day VR will shrink in both size requirements and cost. The real risk here is Rift and Vive shutting down. I mean, let's be fair. HTC is bleeding cash and I doubt if the company will be around 5 years from now. As for Oculus, it has the money bags of Facebook, so that is its only silver lining.  

For Rift and Vive, unless then solve the cost problem, comfort problem and the space requirements problem and yes, I almost forgot, the content problem, they both have tough times ahead. Maybe they can ask James Cameron to turn the dozen or so Avatar sequels into VR experience :D