Palmer Luckey hoped to demonstrate the “joy” of virtual reality when he posed on the cover of Time magazine last month.
Luckey — a Thomas Edison-esque figure thanks to Facebook’s $2 billion buyout of his startup Oculus last year — floats above a beach wearing VR goggles in the photo. His hands reach out to feel the ocean breeze and his bare feet dangle above the sand in the virtual world he apparently sees through his Rift headset.
The headline promised to reveal “The Surprising Joy of Virtual Reality – And Why It’s About to Change the World.” But the photograph of Luckey may instead be “remembered as the cover that inspired a thousand mashups,” Variety noted after the Internet exploded with Photoshopped reimaginings, including one in which the 23-year-old was inserted into Michelangelo’s famous painting of “The Creation of Adam.”
The mashups quickly faded into the background. So too, some observers warn, could the growing hype around virtual reality, which increasingly feels reminiscent of other tech trends that shot to prominence but were soon abandoned. Will VR go the way of 3D televisions?
Oculus gets its chance to convince us that VR is as surprising and joyful as Luckey wants us to believe when it hosts a gathering for developers in Los Angeles later this week. More than 1,000 developers are expected to roam the hallways, discussing ideas for creating games, apps and even movies, all designed to work with a technology that drops users into worlds of their own making.
Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, says the absence of content is what’s holding back virtual reality. As these experiences become available, consumers will see value in the technology and ultimately buy in, he says.
“VR is a solution to a problem that most of us have not yet acknowledged that we have,” Pachter said. The hype is legitimate, he added, but premature.
That hasn’t stopped the industry’s biggest players from pushing to get virtual reality into the mainstream. Nearly every major company in the technology industry — Sony, Google, Samsung, Facebook — has a VR project. Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is involved in VR. By the holiday shopping season, VR devices from smartphone makers Samsung and HTC are expected to be on store shelves. Oculus and Sony will follow with their own takes next year. None of the companies has announced firm launch dates or what it will charge for these devices.
Analysts are already predicting a splash. About 3 million VR headsets are expected to sell next year, according to a report from industry watcher Juniper Research. By 2020, the figure is expected to jump 10 times to 30 million.
Jonah Ray, a VR enthusiast who hosted an industry event called the Proto Awards on Tuesday, expects video game players will be the first to latch on to the technology before attracting other consumers. “It’s going to start with gaming, go into learning and then it will be an educational tool,” he said. Still, Ray believes it will remain a tech accessory until someone figures out how to make it indispensable.
Industry experts say Apple’s and Google’s efforts to build app stores and attract an army of developers to create programs for them was what turned smartphones into a necessary tool of the modern age. The same will need to happen for virtual reality, they say.
At the conference in Hollywood, Luckey and Oculus will have the opportunity to persuade developers VR has a place in the increasingly crowded gadget world, where smartphones, tablets, game consoles, drones and even good old-fashioned TVs compete for our attention. The seminars will address nitty-gritty technological issues — one is titled “3D Audio: Designing Sounds for VR” — as well as entertainment applications.
Other planned talks should be more entertaining, such as “The Force of Virtual Reality at Lucasfilm,” a session headed up by one of that company’s executives. Lucasfilm is the division of Walt Disney that created the highly anticipated upcoming movie “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.”
Oculus executives talk excitedly about a technological revolution coming our way. But they’re also concerned that in the rush to market, partner companies might push out low-quality products. That could turn off consumers and doom the industry.
That’s part of the reason Oculus has invited competitors to try out its devices. Oculus reignited consumer interest in VR three years ago when Luckey began selling prototypes of the Rift headset he’d invented. Oculus has since become one of the leading innovators in the industry, developers say, because of the sophistication of its hardware and the popularity of its software. It’s used that market power to strike partnerships with Microsoft and Samsung, hoping to make Oculus technology an industry standard as well.
“Come see this and makes sure yours is as good or close,” Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said late last year. “Don’t poison the well.”
It’s not an irrational fear. Google Glass, the smart eyewear designed by the Internet search giant, went from celebrated technological achievement to punchline before consumers had a chance to buy in. Google pulled the $1,500 Glass prototype from the market in January and is now looking to revamp the product.
Whether virtual reality will suffer a similar fate is unclear. But app developers, movie makers and device manufacturers are all betting that we’ll want to work and play in virtual worlds sometime soon.
“Put the most cynical person in the world into a VR headset and good luck getting them not to smile or cry or laugh,” said Peter Levin, president of interactive ventures and games at the film studio Lionsgate. “People really do feel there’s a thing here.”