Zuckerberg wants VR goggles on your face

03 Mar 2016

Virtual reality was hard-pitched this year on the show floor at Mobile World Congress. As my colleague John Tanner wrote: "...device makers like Samsung, LG, HTC, Oculus Rift and Alcatel announced new VR headsets" at MWC.

And one of its proponents is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who made a surprise appearance at Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked Event at MWC in Barcelona to talk about virtual reality and 360 videos.

"Why Facebook decided to enter the virtual reality market in such a big way now and what it could possibly be planning is largely unknown," said a 2014 article on Computerworld Hong Kong. "Previous acquisitions like Instagram and WhatsApp served to solidify Facebook's dominance in social media, its visions for Oculus are even more grandiose."

Perhaps, but grandiosity in slow-motion, according to a November 2015 article on zdnet.com. During Facebook's third quarter earnings conference call, Zuckerberg said: "The first thing that I want to stress here is that these kind of new platforms take a long time to develop."

Yet only a few months later a much-circulated picture shows a smiling Zuck striding down an aisle past people wearing huge goggles out of some 50s sci-fi movie. In an interview at MWC, the Facebook CEO said VR represents a "more immersive way to share moments in your life – the ability to share a whole scene will be profound."

Back to the VR future
VR is hardly new. Tanner: "I wrote a paper on it in grad school in the early 1990s." But a quick check of the Wikipedia entry reveals a smattering of efforts, including some disused tech firms like Sega, Netscape, and Linden Lab—who begat Second Life, which spawned the transcendent computer-rendered artwork of Italian l'enfant femme terrible Jenn Villalota.

And despite decades of hype, VR has yet to reach any sort of critical mass. Zuckerberg says it requires a separate 4K display for each eye, and that's a whole lotta bandwidth – not to mention wearing some sort of head-contraption that obscures the real world. And as Tanner writes: "For all the buzz over VR at MWC, it still smacks of novelty."

What's it for?
The roadway of history is littered with Next Great Gizmos. 3D viewing technology has gone from red/green lenses (never intended for use with cinema, but pressed into service during the rockin' 1950s) to the polarizing-filter technique which reached its apex with the 2009 film Avatar. And somewhere by the VR roadside is a kid named Jared with dreadlocks and a wired-up glove that controlled...something.

Novelty evaporates, so VR must mesh gears with an actual business need and be received positively by its intended audience. In this regard, it's no different from videoconferencing or other similar technologies – the need justifies the means. Symbiosis is a must, and user-takeup is key.

No one uses the term "BYOD" much nowadays as everyone brings their own device everywhere. And the functionality of these now-everyday devices continues to increase. When we're already communicating successfully via text, voice and video, any new channel must meet an arbitrary standard of user-friendliness while simultaneously filling a previously unheeded niche – users must perceive value from the get-go.

Wanted: device evolution
Thus far, VR seems to depend on a set of occlusive goggles clamped on the user's head. That hasn't changed since the 90s, and given that it's obtrusive, uncomfortable and just plain weird, maybe the welding-goggle-setup is better viewed as a prototype. In any case, it's hard to imagine the technology being used for more than an hour or two at a time – except possibly by hardcore gamers.

The jury's still out on VR, but I feel that the mass-adoption breathlessly hyped by Zuckerberg requires substantial re-engineering of the requisite gear. And the bandwidth needed to drive a pair of 4K monitors (even tiny ones) means that bandwidth-rich nations will benefit first.

All this leaves VR in the novelty-bin. But stay tuned, because predicting future tech trends is impossible. Ten years ago we didn't walk around with an app-laden computer/receiver-transmitter in our hand communicating and translating on the fly, so who knows what we'll carry ten years from now?

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