I remember clearly My first experience with Vive. It was many CESes ago. I was running a different site. Budgets were tight and I had the most experience on the ground, so I went on my own. I had a different kind of fire at the time, writing 100 stories over five days and walking every possible inch of the show floor—even areas turning out row after row of imitations that were taken from the consumer electronics flavor of the day.
A day later, I met HTC and turned on the headset. The noise of humanity melted. I was under water. It was calm and serene – contemplative even. It was dark there inside. Rays and other fish swam, silhouetted against a dark blue background. Then came the biggest animal that ever lived on the planet, purring and singing softly. The blue whale’s eye is surprisingly small in relation to the rest of its massive figure. It’s about the size of a grapefruit or softball. He blinked a few times, trying to make out what he was seeing.
When the demo was over, I was hesitant to take the thing off and re-enter the crowd. For me, this feeling is the pinnacle of virtual reality. Calm. I paid a stupid premium to see the new Avatar in 3D and all the other trappings. The fight scenes were fun, but I would have been completely satisfied if the whole thing had been super-intelligent space whales and a moody teenager learning to swim in Na’vi.
It doesn’t have to be underwater, of course. I’ve played with a few different planet simulators that made me feel similarly peaceful for a few fleeting moments. In the years since, I’ve become more disciplined with my meditation practice, and I would say that these kinds of virtual reality shows are the cabinet technology that provided a shortcut to the sensation of good sitting.
I’m sure all of this says a lot more about me than virtual reality. People are drawn to different experiences. While chatting with Shen Ye, HTC’s Global Head of Product, at the presentation, I mentioned another VR demo of the business. The company has been using some sort of Olympics-style gaming package. An attendee asked if they had an Office Simulator. He said he likes to use that as a baseline for testing headphones.
I’ve always been fascinated by this, using expensive and powerful technology to do the most mundane things imaginable. Yi suggested that appeal was the ability to screw things up. It’s the freedom to do something most of us wouldn’t do in our regular, non-virtual lives. Think of Grand Theft Auto, you just intentionally knock over a cup full of pencils. God forbid that I judge other people to get their kicks.
I made sure to try out the big headsets at this year’s show—specifically the Magic Leap 2, Meta Quest Pro, Vive XR Elite, and PSVR2. It was a valuable exercise, both in terms of comparing and contrasting techniques, and also gave some insights into the different approaches. When you put on PSVR2, for example, it immediately becomes clear why gaming has been so central to the virtual reality playground for so long. Horizon Call of the Mountain is a great way to learn about technology.
The demo begins when the bag is pulled from your head. You find yourself in the back of a three-person dinghy, as it is explained to you that you recently got out of prison to help with a mission. I’m generally not a fan of long setups, but it makes sense here. You need to get your directions and take some time to enjoy the scenery as a group of robotic animals live their lives among the foliage. One of the two characters is walking around slowly in front of you, in order to avoid spotting more evil creatures. Naturally, you get caught and all hell breaks loose. There’s a quick blackout, you sink into the water and then the game really begins.
One of the downsides of virtual reality is that all those weird aspects of the virtual human form are on full display, with the game taking up your entire field of vision. But the scenery is great. After climbing a cliff side, the Sony representative running the demo taps you on the shoulder and reminds you to take it all in. When you finally take off the headset, you find yourself in a situation similar to a whale exhibit, inside a packed convention center, only this time, you’ve been watched by passersby as you wander around for 30 minutes.
Magic Leap represents the other end of the spectrum with its mixed reality show. The company’s financial struggles are well documented. It resulted in two major things: First, the company just sold a majority stake to Saudi Arabia. Second, pivot. In the short term, there appears to be a lot of money to be made in the organization. A lot of companies have deep pockets, and these headphones are just way too expensive for 99% of consumers.
Pricing is going to be a big problem for the foreseeable future. If there’s a sweet spot between price right to be good and cheap enough to be affordable, it’s been elusive until now. Magic Leap didn’t struggle because it was an inferior product. The demos I got at CES were, frankly, amazing. In one, a 3D scan of the human brain is shown, pointing the way toward use in medical settings. Elsewhere, Mt. In the foreground, a wildfire is advancing. Small helicopters circling in the air above.
Although the mixed reality experience isn’t intentionally isolated like virtual reality, it can still be easy to get lost in it. They click quickly. It really feels like the future. Perhaps the effectiveness of the technology in the field is another question entirely. Remember how Microsoft’s massive military HoloLens contract shrank, in part, due to the fact that the light bleed across a soldier’s face could be seen by the other side?
This is an exciting example of course, but there is a lot of work to be done across the board to make these types of systems real business value. However, of the three headphones I tried, the Magic Leap really was the best. It’s also more than twice the price of the HTC and Meta systems.
Yee described the battle for pricing as a “race to the bottom” in our conversation. I certainly agree that the prevalence of bad AR/VR/MR systems is probably a net setback for the industry. Sure, things like Google Cardboard were very accessible, but is a bad VR experience better than no experience at all, when it comes to moving the industry forward?
“The giants who are really trying to revolutionize this race, making cheap headphones are losing money,” says Ye. “At the end of the day, what does your personal data cost? We’re not a social media company. Our business model isn’t based on advertising revenue, so it’s not something we do. We want to build good hardware.”
The “personal data” part here is, of course, a big shot for companies, like Meta, that are in the data monetization game. Is using your personal information to support access worth it? I think it depends on the person. Many people have given up more for less in the field of social media.
One thing all parties seem to agree on is that Apple’s inevitable entry into space – if successful – will be a net positive. Rising tides, ships, etc. would certainly be the endorsement of a technology that has been looking like the next big thing for decades. The next inevitable question is: will there be room for everyone?