With the advent of consumer VR, and just this weekend, the introduction of a very robust web browser offering from Samsung for the GearVR, it is time to revisit the issue of what the internet in Virtual Reality is, and whether this time it will be different.
It goes without saying that Virtual and Augmented Reality are not new by any standard, in fact gaming and simulation have tested the waters of virtual reality for over half a century. Sutherland’s “Sword of Damocles” dates back to 1966, and there are references of designs dating back into the mid-1950’s. The origins if this technology pre-date this author, who is no spring chicken. Generations have come and gone since these early years and yet here we are touting the final release of consumer VR. So why did it take so long?
There’s been success on the simulation-side in this time frame. Both commercial and military applications of VR have proved very valuable. With these large companies and governments, the cost of massive VR installations, expensive hardware and custom software has been justified as it trained effectively and provided a massive cushion of safety, versus putting someone in a dangerous situation where human lives are at stake, such as a fighter or commercial jet. Some brave entrepreneurs sought out a means to deliver location based entertainment with VR, and met with some success, but ultimately proved unsustainable. This author remembers going to “Magic Edge” in Silicon Valley, in a building adjoining Silicon Graphics, and an experience of flying a networked fighter jet complete with fly by wire controls, mounted on a Gimbal. Giant Robot installations found their ways into shopping malls and for only @$5-10 a minute, you too could be a “mech pilot”. However, on the consumer gaming side, it has always been interesting, but not profitable. While there have been many substantial efforts improving VR over the decades, it never had a consumer market and was never considered worth the video game industry’s time to pursue. It suffered from high system specification (which meant very expensive hardware), heavy headsets, bad latency, and a set of peripherals that usually put it in a location based entertainment environment, and not the home. Let’s keep in mind, the video game industry has seen a massive expansion in the past two decades, going from less than a $billion, to the over $150 billion industry Goliath that it is today. It did this without Virtual Reality, and yet now it seems poised to embrace VR as the savior of the AAA experience.
While VR is not new ground, what is new are the connective tissues, portability and ultimately affordability that might make this round, like Neo walking into the very confusing sixth iteration of The Matrix, different than those that came before. Palmer Luckey will always be the guy who changed people’s minds about VR. I had been to over a dozen E3 shows, and seen a lot of VR hardware come and go, and while always fun to try out, I never expected any of them to find their way to success. In June of 2012, I found myself on the East Coast, not attending E3, but I heard about it, and a lot of what I heard was about the Oculus Rift. This was not just the VR enthusiasts and crazies talking, but people I respected in the game industry saying that this was a different experience, and it was better. While there were definitely some innovations in the Rift, most of what it was doing had been done before, but now it was running on a consumer PC, and somehow the development kits cost less than a gaming console! It was good, and it was accessible.
So what about the internet? In the past few years, the Rift has generated a lot of demonstrations: most of them single player, most of them offline. That has changed, and the trend is now towards connectivity. A recent quote from Carmack claims he created GearVR Social “to get the conversation started” on what is clearly a push to make this new consumer medium, “the” medium with which to be online, be social…to be. There are now several companies that are priding themselves on establishing the metaverse, replete with avatars, virtual cities and everyone has superpowers. In recent years, game engines have made software development very accessible and this along with crowdfunding (from which Oculus sprang BTW) has given rise to thousands of small development teams throwing their hat into the ring to try to make something new and define at least some small part of this “new” thing, VR.
Rewind to 1996, I was a college student in San Francisco. I studied psychology, but I was addicted to computing, specifically computer graphics and the internet. I spent every cent I had to build my own PC, just so I could play the best games and surf the new internet properly. Spawned like so many who had read Gibson or Stephenson, I wanted to be a part of shaping this new thing, the internet (which like VR had been around for decades, and also like VR, it had not been easily accessible to consumers prior).
I had read about a new language, VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), in some computer magazine I was reading at the time. One of the developers of this language, Mark Pesce, had a vision for a metaverse that started with open source tools to allow everyone to become a creator. It didn’t seem much more difficult than HTML, which I was pretty good at, so I bought a book and taught myself. Before long I was making 3D chatrooms, avatars, and trolling the internet (which was still hard to find things in…pre-Google) for any cool textures or 3D objects I could find to use in my worlds. One company in particular, Black Sun Interactive, had pioneered the use of this language into a Netscape plugin (remember the “N”?) and it allowed people to hyperlink their worlds online and engage in chat while moving around in a 3D space as an avatar. So a community was born of Social VR developers, building cool things and showing them off each night to a bunch of like-minded enthusiasts. Some other cool efforts in this realm were “Alpha World” where you could buy real estate and build a house, and Worlds Inc. who had a space station 3D chat hub with secret rooms. The stage was set now: Netscape was the browser, VRML the language, and several startups already digging into the VR social space. It seemed like the metaverse was going to happen, and then it didn’t.
The internet has remained largely 2D for the last 20 years. There were a few advancements in capabilities of VRML, but all of them required separate plugins and access was not easy for the average consumer of the internet. The fight over search engines was just getting started, and the browser wars were well underway with Microsoft leading the charge with a browser they just retired this year, Internet Explorer. You could argue that the metaverse was put on hold because the bubble burst; that the internet had fueled too much crazy money, too many web companies trying to get in on that new thing “e-commerce”, but that wasn’t it. While awesome and full of promise, the VR experience at that time wasn’t quite primed for mass consumption. It was hard to access: a user had to install specific browsers and specific plugins, both which needed constant updating. The worlds and avatars were visually awesome, but only if you include the caveats of “web-based” and “at the time”. PC games were still the king of graphics and they set the bar for everyone, VR just couldn’t compete on this front. What did happen soon after this was a social VR experiment by a game studio in Austin called Origin, they launched a game called Ultima Online. Followed by many others over the years, the social VR experience became a game-based one for the following 2 decades. This was made mass market when World of Warcraft shipped and proceeded to accumulate over 10 million customers, a number thought unheard of by the game industry. While there were no headsets involved in with the VRML chatrooms, or the MMORPG games that followed in their wake, Social VR was alive and thriving.
I spent a good amount of time with GearVR Social when it first came out. It was clearly a prototype, and awkward in its limitations, cubeheads and all. Vimeo and Twitch would not have been my first content choices, but I’m certain there were some licensing (read: not Google) decisions that drove that instead the natural choice: YouTube. Most of the participants those first few weeks were developers, in small numbers, ubiquitously people who made VR things…great to talk to, but always guarded about their secret VR work that would undoubtedly change the world. When the consumer Gear shipped a couple weeks back, I jumped back in to see if it would be full of people from all walks of life…nope…same crew. Maybe as market penetration increases we will see this shift towards a wider demographic, it is after all, only a few weeks old.
Then came Netflix, I spent many a late night in bed, safely within my fortress of solitude (the GearVR with headphones) watching Sherlock and Star Trek Original Series. I really enjoyed this personal experience, it was my living room only better, had the headset not started to feel a little uncomfortable after a couple hours, I would have probably never taken it off. I had a moment where I finally removed the headset and was surprised to see it was light out, the sun came up and I didn’t notice…
So this week, we got a browser from Samsung for the GearVR. It’s good. This is not a prototype, it is an almost fully functioning browser. I say almost, because Google Play Store and any Web Conferencing I tried fell flat. I was hoping to get into a meeting with some of my co-workers and announce halfway in that I was in VR, but not yet. I tried Skype, Hangouts, Zoom…no luck. I really enjoyed the browse history, easy access to Google speech options for search (thank you for caving FB), and an interesting take on a look-at VR keyboard that was actually not terrible to use. There was YouTube, finally it felt like I was on the internet, I went to my webpage, checked out my videos. I went to my FB feed, I posted a couple comments and dropped a couple likes. While this experience in no way felt superior to surfing the web on my phone or computer, it felt very close to it, holding the promise that it will not be long before this becomes the surfing medium of choice.
All fronts of this war are moving: Hardware competition is stiff, everyone wants the largest FOV, highest resolution, and of course the highest frame-rate. Many AAA and indie developers are changing their minds about the viability of this market and are jumping in. The wide range of VR headsets out there make this an accessible option (once it’s a marketing Tchotchke, it can be deemed mass consumable) and last, but not least, there are some significant strides into the internet side of VR which may just make this time around, “the” time. While we are looking at a few major players on the PC-side, Apple is busy, Google is busy, and there are a hundred competitors making headsets right now. On the console side, Sony will be winning this battle in 2016, just for the sheer install base and content, but Oculus and Microsoft are not far behind, and don’t forget those steam machines.
So here we are. Are we ready? Will it be this time?