Originally published (with minor variations) on April 3 in the Wall Street Journal
If you’ve noticed the incessant media coverage of virtual reality, you’re probably wondering why so many companies are so enthusiastic about the technology, perplexed why you share little of their zeal, but vaguely fearful that you’re missing out on the next great leap in the Internet’s evolution.
I’m here to say you probably shouldn’t worry. I should know: 10 years ago, I was one of those evangelists. And I now hear the same effusive rhetoric, the same Silicon Valley boosterism, the same desperate rush to paddle onto an oncoming wave of hype. But we’ll almost certainly wind up more or less back where we ended a decade ago—with unfulfilled promises, squandered investments and another case study in Valley insularity.
From 2003-06 I helped launch Second Life, a 3-D online virtual world conceived and promoted as a real-life version of the Metaverse. That is, the dazzling, alternate digital world first depicted in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” where anything could be experienced through a shared computer simulation accessed by millions world-wide through VR headsets.
Excited by that promise, the media quickly inundated us with coverage. While Second Life actually resembled little more than a 3-D online game like Minecraft, reporters were more than happy to describe it as something far more—the Metaverse finally made real, which we could use for countless practical applications beyond gaming, from architecture and long-distance corporate meetings to advertising, education, science and military simulations.
Leading corporations, organizations and universities came calling. Where the New York Times is now pedaling VR content, Reuters set up a news bureau in Second Life; where advertising agencies now clamor to create VR-based marketing campaigns, American Apparel, NBC, Toyota and others hosted private islands in Second Life. Where executives with Facebook and Google now make grandiose predictions for VR, execs with IBM, Amazon and Dell invested ample time and resources in Second Life.IBM's corporate campus in Second Life in 2007
Tens of millions tried Second Life once, but daunted by the confusing user experience and high hardware requirements, nearly all quit and never returned. Second Life still exists, maintaining a small but dedicated user base, a truly impressive microcosm of grassroots creativity -- but also a shadow of what it was once promised to become.
Google aims to remedy the problem by making VR more affordable and relevant to users. Retailing for around $20, Google Cardboard, which allows you to turn your own panoramic shots into a (static) virtual world, is touted as a device that will popularize the technology. But judging by Google’s own data, very few people who own Cardboard regularly use it. The New York Times’s heavily promoted VR app? Also little used. On Internet message boards popular with gamers—presumed to be virtual reality’s biggest target market—only a fraction express much enthusiasm for VR.
Most of the new VR technology, like the highly anticipated Oculus Rift that started shipping last week, requires a bulky and expensive headset that literally blinds a user to the outside world. As a review in this newspaper put it: “After the novelty wears off, using the 1.5-pound headset is about as awkward as sleeping on an airplane.” Nevertheless, VR headsets from HTC are due out this month and from Sony in October.
Business analysts who predict mass growth of VR are extrapolating from adoption trends of personal computers and videogame consoles, but those are fundamentally different products. It remains a mystery if there exists any substantial market for technology that’s so intrusive beyond a niche of enthusiasts.
If I’m right, the next few years will see this latest hype wave for VR crest and subside, leaving perhaps a few million new consumers—a niche within the hard-core gamer niche who will use their VR devices mostly for what Second Life is still mostly used for now: 3-D games, and, of course, 3-D porn.
My Second Life colleagues watched crestfallen as the mass market lost interest in the alternate world we’d built for them. In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. We’d spent so much time immersed in videogames and Internet culture it seemed obvious to us that simulating all of reality was the next step. And so we ignored all the commercial, cultural, even philosophical barriers standing in our way.
Our successors seem to be doing that now. Maybe this time they’ll succeed. But it’s my guess that most human beings still aren’t ready to abandon the real world for a virtual one. Today’s VR evangelists seem to forget why escaping into virtual reality was so popular in the near-future depicted in “Snow Crash”: America had collapsed into anarchy and despair, and much of the world with it. On second thought, who knows? If a Trump presidency becomes reality, VR sales might finally skyrocket.
Mr. Au is the author of “The Making of Second Life” (HarperCollins, 2008) and the blog New World Notes
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