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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

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