Slow down the virtual reality hype. We’re still waiting for the good stuff

VR is front and center at CES, but it's still too passive

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Earlier this week, I asked Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe about a statement the company has been making since 2013: that a consumer version of its head-mounted display is “months, not years” away. “So we’re running out of months?” he joked. Then he reiterated what we already knew: Oculus isn’t sure when the Rift — the reason we’re all talking about virtual reality in the first place — will come out. It would rather wait until it thinks virtual reality is genuinely ready than risk the Rift becoming another Power Glove or Virtual Boy, an embarrassing footnote in tech history.

But at CES 2015, virtual reality is front and center. Oculus has a two-story booth for the Crescent Bay headset prototype. Samsung is running a “virtual reality experience” showcasing its recently released Gear VR headset. Peripherals company Razer announced the Open Source Virtual Reality development platform and its own hacked-together headset. You can see a final iteration of Virtuix’s omnidirectional treadmill, now a few months away from release. There’s a bizarre self-described “Oculus killer” by billionaire Alki David and a fashionable alternative called Glyph that projects images on your eyes. Even stalwarts like Intel and HP have products. And filmmakers are making forays into virtual reality content. Fox Searchlight showed off a three-minute “experience” based on the Reese Witherspoon film Wild,” smaller company Arkamys showcased 360-degree video, and Samsung released Milk VR, a platform for virtual reality filmmaking.

In some parts, there's a sense that this is the year the pieces fall in place, or even, as my colleague Ben Popper puts it, "a feeling of inevitability." Razer marketing manager Chris Mitchell, for example, says OSVR will "give virtual reality that final push into the consumer space. It's always almost there, but it's ... ‘Oh, when is it going to be consumer ready?'" But he and others will also readily admit there's very little to do with the hardware right now. More importantly, there's little incentive for anyone to fix that. And the stumbling, preliminary efforts risk sinking consumer VR before it even gets going.

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Oculus Crescent Bay

The Avegant Glyph virtual retinal display

The single most fun thing to do with the Gear VR, with the exception of a few games and videos, is showing other people the Gear VR. A few days ago, I left a unit in our CES trailer and got to watch a few people experience it for the first time. I got my parents to check out a short film about cave paintings over Christmas. Each time, I felt the thrill of watching someone get ported into another world for the first time. It wasn’t just about sharing a hobby, though. It was a way to vicariously recapture the joy of seeing something that I’d long since used up. Touring Tony Stark’s lab was fun once. I have no desire to do it again.

That's the problem with much virtual reality. After years of experimentation, we've found something that undeniably works: short visual spectacles like a visit to Iceland or a song from a Paul McCartney concert. And unfortunately, that thing is both difficult to monetize and almost entirely passive.

The most fun thing to do with the Gear VR is show other people the Gear VR

For all the people making fascinating experimental games on it, the Rift is quickly becoming a $350 brand engagement machine. Technologically impressive but difficult to use — it’s meant for developers, after all — it’s a favorite of film studios, hotels, even soda companies. (I took the Marriott Teleporter, but passed on the Mountain Dew VR Skate Experience.) That’s not necessarily bad; studios can put out bombastic tie-ins like Pacific Rim: Jaeger Pilot or experiment with immersive environments like Into the Storm’s wind-simulating fans. But these are the only chances many people will get to actually try VR right now, as well as the most heavily publicized ones.

They're also something of a dead end in the short term. These productions, including some on show at CES, are designed for the broadest base possible, which means they have to eschew anything that could induce motion sickness and any mechanics that would be too hard to learn in a three-minute session. They're a terrible indicator of whether people would enjoy a feature-length VR film or concert. They're an even worse indicator of whether people would pay for the privilege. A few companies are selling VR content, like the creators of $10 VR shooter Time Rifters, but they're in the vast minority. Oculus and Samsung don't have an e-commerce platform yet, so Gear VR partners have to either give away their games or limit them to demos with a "coming soon" banner.

Oculus Crescent Bay

The Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype

Oculus executives Palmer Luckey and John Carmack have stressed over and over that bad tech, like the laggy, tunnel-like headsets of the ‘90s, could turn people off VR for good. But it's also dangerous if the most public face of virtual reality is a fancy TV, constantly tuned to commercials and music videos. These experiences make the best of a bad situation, working around the fact that nobody's figured out how to really interact with virtual space or regularly prevent motion sickness. But they're not the kind of thing that usually inspires people to come back to a platform week after week, whether in a $350 Rift or a $30 Google Cardboard. By getting in on the ground floor, they're hyping up VR at its most rudimentary.

As companies compete with or riff off the Oculus Rift, there's a glut of headsets being announced. But they're all struggling with the same lack of content, and there's not much they can do to solve the problem. Input is the limiting factor — without a good controller, we're stuck just consuming things. The most meaningful progress in VR right now is not going to come from yet another head-mounted display.

We're hyping VR at its most rudimentary

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, VR didn’t die in the ‘90s — it survived in industrial design, training simulations, medicine, and other places where it filled a concrete need. It’s the entertainment sector that crashed and burned, and with it, the hopes of VR devices joining computers, phones, and televisions in the ranks of consumer electronics. If it’s going to succeed this time around, it will be because of the people making VR interactive.

Oculus is working on some kind of secret project — given recent statements and its recent acquisition of hand-tracking company Nimble VR, there’s a good chance it’s looking at motion control — but for now, it’s all but removed interactivity from its demos. Many developers rely on basic gamepads, but they’re not designed to work well with head tracking, and they don’t feel immersive. Motion control hardware is niche and fragmented. "What we’ve seen out there in the community, nothing’s really hit that mark yet, where you would put it on and you look, and you touch and feel … and say ‘This is it! I’m ready to go!’" says Iribe. "We’re not there yet."

The Sixense STEM motion controller

And motion controllers are making progress. Sixense and Leap Motion are both betting on that market, but in different ways: the former uses handheld grips tracked with an electromagnetic field, and the latter detects the fine points of your hands with a camera. Each has tradeoffs, and neither was announcing big news, but they’re still two of the most promising VR companies at CES. I drummed my fingers impatiently through a trailer for a David Attenborough documentary at the Samsung Gear VR booth, but the very smallest interactive tasks — shoe shopping, batting at blocks — felt like they had the potential to become something bigger.

The most meaningful progress in VR right now won't come from another head-mounted display

Oculus has been cagey about whether it will release a consumer edition of the Oculus Rift without some kind of controller. With the components of a final headset getting locked down, it’s starting to seem like the company is stalling, waiting for an input system. But that might be a good thing. It’s increasingly evident that visual spectacle isn’t enough to give the technology real staying power, and adapting it to our current limited options will only set it on the wrong course. If we’re going to get people excited about virtual reality, let’s make sure it’s more than a screen first.