First Click: It's too early for VR fanboys

March 23rd, 2016

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Congratulations, you’ve survived the “fanboy” wars so far. You bought a MacBook for home despite needing a PC to function in the cubicle farm. You own a PS4 because you just knew that Kinect would never amount to anything more than a gimmick. And now you’ve conceded to the prevailing wisdom that Samsung, not Apple, makes the best smartphone with the best camera on the best mobile operating system.

Gut check: how do you feel right now? Did my words personally offend you? Do you feel like I'm challenging your very identity? Ask yourself why as you brace for the VR wars to come.

By Christmas, allegiances to the three major VR platforms will be entrenched, and early adopters will begin justifying their headset purchases in the internet comments and forums alike. Hell, you can already hear it today and we're still in the preorder phase:

"We started it all," shout the entitled Oculus Rift fans.

"PSVR does what Rift does for less," spit frothy-mouthed PS4 owners.

"Vive is the most capable, sir," reads the Comic-Sans scrawl of timid HTC fans still desperate for a turnaround.

The VR fan wars will be as inescapable as the insults slung at those who didn’t agree with your position on the topic of capacitive vs. resistive touchscreens in 2007, just after the launch of the first iPhone. Not that this should surprise anyone.

Rabid brand allegiances are as strong as ever and there’s plenty of research to explain why that is. Social Identity Theory has long described humanity’s desire to divide into categories of "us" vs. "them," and helps explain the euphoria felt when your team wins the Super Bowl or your candidate is elected president. The more committed you are to the cause, the greater the sense of elation.

An infamous Coke vs. Pepsi study from 2003 found that people will even lie to themselves to defend their brand allegiance. When told which soft drink was which, Coke was chosen over Pepsi 75 percent of the time. But people picked the sweeter-tasting Pepsi 50 percent of the time when they didn’t know the brands. Tell a Coke person this in 2016 and you’ll be dismissed with the absolute certainty that decades of brand affiliation brings: Coca-Cola is the real thing so I too, am the real thing, you tourist.

2011 study from the University of Illinois found that fanatics refuse to accept criticism about their favorite brands as an act of self preservation. "Consumers with high self-brand connections (SBC) respond to negative brand information as they do to personal failure — they experience a threat to their positive self-view," reads the study. "After viewing negative brand information, high (vs. low) SBC consumers reported lower state self-esteem." The study concludes that these so-called high SBC individuals will ignore brand failures and continue to defend them even in decline because failing to do so is a threat to their self image.

I wish I was wrong about the VR divisiveness to come, but I’m not — I’ve seen the psychology of the fanboy (and let’s face it, it’s usually angry young men) play out too many times before. And that’s a shame, really, because it’s too early to draw HTC-, Sony-, and Oculus-shaped lines in the virtual sands. As inevitable as VR feels, nobody knows exactly what the future of virtual reality will look like, or how it’ll evolve alongside augmented reality efforts like the Microsoft HoloLens.

Who could have predicted smartphones back in 1977 with the launch of the Apple ][, the first successful mainstream computer? That’s where we are today with the launch of the first mainstream VR headsets. What we need at this early stage are fanatics for VR in general, not fanboy factions blindly aligned to singular brands. After all, people everywhere still need to get used to the idea of strapping a giant box to their face.

"It doesn’t really become a competition until it becomes a zero-sum game," said Oculus founder Palmer Luckey of Sony and HTC when we interviewed him recently. "[It’s] all of us together, against the public perception of virtual reality that’s been built up over the decades." A lovely sentiment, to be sure. But one that’s only likely to last until Facebook investors see Rift marketshare dip below HTC and Sony for the first time.

But a boy, who's also a fan, can still dream, can't he?

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