Buckle up: VR and AR are still just getting started
Now that VR's initial burst of early-adopter enthusiasm has tapered off a little, there's a temptation to lump it together with recent technologies that fizzled out after being over-hyped. Is VR a flop? Is it destined to forever exist as a fringe novelty? Believe what you want, but VR's (and AR's) standing as the ultimate computing frontier is inevitable.
During the last decade or two, we've seen several technologies that were built up far too much, only to land with a comical thud. 3D TVs come to mind, but you could put the Segway, Google Glass and (to a lesser degree) smartwatches in the same category. With VR's buzz stagnating a bit of late, some folks may be tempted to say it's careening full speed into the Canyon of Crappy Consumer Tech.
But have no fear: VR is just barely getting off the ground.
If the history of computing has taught us anything, it's that consumer-tech evolution favors the computers that grow more human-centric over time. The tech that's friendlier to human nature and better at adapting to the person (rather than the other way around) will be the tech that wins. That is, until something even more natural and human comes along.
In the 1970s, personal computers hit the scene with keyboards and command-line interfaces on monochrome displays. 1984's Macintosh, with its mouse and graphical user interface, introduced the world to a more intuitive, friendlier and pointier-clickier way of interacting with a PC. In 2007, Apple spearheaded yet another revolution, with the first iPhone and its multitouch interface: the era we're still living in today.
In the last few years, we've seen progress with virtual assistants, first in our smartphones and now in home speakers like Amazon Echo. While AI still has plenty of room for improvement, casual chats with computers (which will only get smarter and more natural over time) mark yet another human-centric advancement.
Still, verbal conversation alone will always be limited: For many computing tasks, it needs to be joined by some kind of visual and physical element. We'd be naive to expect that part to always be played by a flat display.
Enter VR and AR: the ultimate destination for computing. The final frontier, if you will.
When we can reach out with our own hands to manipulate real-looking (and maybe even real-feeling) objects, hold seemingly in-person conversations with people who live on the other side of the world, and visit faraway destinations without leaving home, then computers will have completed their mission of adapting to us. When they get to the point where our cavemen ancestors could have used them without any instructions, then the personal computer will have done its job.
And if there are times when you still need something like a smartphone, monitor or keyboard? VR and AR will give you virtual versions of those as well: Why buy an expensive laptop when you can use a fully realized virtual notebook, courtesy of your AR glasses? You can make the screen as big or small as you want and change the device's design every day. It will be the lightest laptop ever made, weighing absolutely nothing.
Once VR reaches its full potential, there's no item or experience – real or fantasy – that VR and AR won't be able to create.
In the long run, VR and AR can't fail. It's a tech that can take you anywhere, create anything and let you do anything. How can something that magical not become the standard?
During the last five years, we've seen incredible innovation in the VR/AR space – starting with the Oculus Rift Kickstarter in 2012, followed by mobile VR, high-quality motion controls like Oculus Touch, room-scale VR, and a glimpse at high-quality AR with HoloLens. But with that flurry of innovation quieting down a bit in the last year (at least in public), we can get the false impression that VR has already "arrived," that it's now fully baked and the final verdict is in: Mainstream audiences just aren't going nuts about it.
Poppycock. The only thing that's arrived today is the very, very beginning of VR and AR.
I love today's VR: We've seen some terrific games already – and much deeper ones are rolling out as we speak. Early social experiences, meanwhile, show a hint of the metaverse to come. I'm no graphic designer, but those who are have shown some amazing creations with apps like Medium.
But thinking today's VR is something close to what it will ultimately evolve into is like someone in 1977 looking at an Apple II and thinking 2017's computers would look roughly the same. Yet here we are, with touch-sensitive, candy-bar-shaped slabs of metal and glass – more powerful than the first PCs by many, many magnitudes – living in our pockets. Without a healthy imagination, there's no way someone 40 years ago could have forecast the smartphone.
As amazing as today's VR gear is for our time, someday we'll look back and giggle at it – much like children today would react to an Apple II.
Virtual and augmented reality will eventually bleed together into one, allowing us to pick and choose what portion of our experience is real and what portion is virtual. Headset form factors, meanwhile, will shrink to the point where they look no different than a regular pair of glasses.
Those headsets and glasses will also grow more and more powerful. Our hands, fingers, facial expressions and entire bodies – down to skin, fingernails and clothing texture – will be tracked and represented perfectly without the help of any controllers. (Though we may still need something like gloves to provide tactile feedback, especially for holographic keyboards.) The field of view in tomorrow's VR and AR will be as wide as our own vision, and the glasses' graphical fidelity so lifelike it will be indistinguishable from the physical world.
At some point beyond that, physical glasses may even be taken out of the equation, replaced by contact lenses or implants. (We're talking way down the line now, possibly past any of our lifetimes.)
Why am I so sure all this will happen? Again, we go back to the cardinal rule of personal technology: Computers will continue to adapt to the human. And there's no theoretical computer that's more natural, visceral and intuitive than one that digitally recreates the physical world we live in. It lets us behave the way we evolved to behave.
Many huge companies – Oculus/Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Valve, HTC, Sony and Apple – are already devoting some of their most brilliant minds (along with countless financial resources) to making this a reality. They share a similar vision of this inevitable future, and are planting their flags in this fertile soil. That isn't likely to stop or stall anytime soon, no matter how many short-term bumps they hit: The draw of the light at the end of the tunnel is too powerful to hit the brakes now.
(As a quick side note, I'm not in the camp of those who believe technology – even VR – is the single answer to everything in life. I hope we never lose the wonder and tranquility of unplugging, powering down and experiencing mother nature without any digital augmentation. I speak of this amazing VR/AR future not as the total sum of humanity, but as the ultimate tool for humanity. There's a big difference.)
So dismiss VR if you like. Look at the not-yet-incredible adoption rates, point out today's technical limitations or high prices, and write it off as a flop in the making. Just be prepared to eat your words – whether it's in a year, five years or a decade. Unlike short-term gimmicks like 3D TV and the Segway, VR and AR are big-picture technologies. As magical as what we've seen so far is, that's still only the tiniest glimpse of what that big picture will look like.
Strap in – it's going to be fun.
For more on the future of VR, check out my favorite expert talk on the subject: Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash, speaking at the company's 2015 developer conference: