We tried VR in the 1980s, and it didn’t work.
In The VR winter Benedict Evans writes about virtual reality and its failure to take off:
We tried VR in the 1980s, and it didn’t work. The idea may have been great, but the technology of the day was nowhere close to delivering it, and almost everyone forgot about it. Then, in 2012, we realised that this might work now. Moore’s law and the smartphone component supply chain meant that the hardware to deliver the vision was mostly there on the shelf. Since then we’ve gone from the proof of concept to maybe three quarters of the way towards a really great mass-market consumer device.
My first encounter with virtual reality was in the 1980s. It was so bad it was laughable. Then again it had a second run of interest in the mid-1990s. There were consumer plays which were only a little less awful than the 1980s experience. Huge unwieldy headsets and odd gloves were all part of the deal.
Silicon Graphics teased journalists with a vision of how the technology might work for business analytics. It sounded convincing at the time.
The idea went something along these lines:
“Imagine you are standing in a field and all the waves of grass are blowing around. Each blade represents a data point – maybe the sales performance of individual outlets or even counter staff working for a multinational retail chain. One or two blades are, perhaps, a different colour. You walk over and investigate these. The purple blade is your best performance sales person. The red one is your worst performer.
And so on…”
While this sounded plausible to the audience in 1995, in hindsight it seems faintly ridiculous. Although there may be many powerful data analysis applications of immersive three-dimensional worlds, finding employee of the month this way seems daft when the results would leap out of an everyday spreadsheet.
A more practical and topical use of immersive three-dimensional graphics might allow researchers to walk around and explore a giant model of, say, a virus to help identify weak spots that medicine or a vaccine could address.
In his story, Evans works through most of the reasons why virtual reality never took off. In part it was always too niche. He offers other reasons, but I think he misses something in his story.
I’ve yet to see a VR experience which is not so bad that I’m embarrassed for the people who made it. There was a VR presentation at an Auckland press conference a year or so ago. Apart from feeling slightly sick and disoriented during the presentation, it was, to say the least unimpressive.
Three years ago at Mobile World Congress a slew of mobile handset companies showed VR systems based on phones. There were at least seven displays, but between them there were only two pieces of content on show. Most shared the same roller coaster ride VR demonstration.
At the time I noted that the fact so many huge names had to show the same content at one of the world’s biggest tech events implied there’s precious little worthwhile content. At last year’s Mobile World Congress, the most visible VR content was the same demonstration. The technology may or may not have been better. Either way it left me cold. Yet the companies pushing it hadn’t bothered to invest in creating the content to show it off.
Virtual reality killer content
There is a chicken and egg here. Put aside for one moment the clunky graphics, the fact that movement isn’t smooth and the possibility of toppling over or vomiting from VR sea sickness.
For VR to take off it needs killer content, but creating immersive, high resolution content is expensive. Far more expensive per minute of content than the cost of a blockbuster movie. And yet almost everyone can watch a blockbuster movie. Only a handful of people can watch VR. Not enough to make it worth creating that blockbuster content.
So until this is resolved or until someone creates a mainstream business application using the technology, VR going to remain a backwater. Every so often the idea will get dusted down and presented again before it’s put back in the too hard basket.