On The Usefulness of AR/VR Headsets

So a couple days ago I spent a few moments tweeting about how much "hope for the future" was embedded inside home computers of the 1980s. I was commenting not so much on the technology itself, but the culture that surrounded it. We were a bunch of social misfits hoping to make the world a better place. We were going to bring people together, democratize access to information and extend people's ability to solve problems through the use of algorithms.

And we more or less did that. But it didn't lead to a utopia. We're in the middle of ANOTHER software crisis (Joe Armstrong has a decent talk about this on YouTube [1]) We have cyber-bullying. We have the intarwebs destroying newspapers, main street shops and the recording industry. (granted, the recording industry needed destroying.)

And I guess what I want to do is warn people off of looking at the renaissance of VR & AR headsets as being some exclusively positive event that will make everyone beautiful, productive and skilled.

When I was a young octopus, my friend John Branch and I spent some time playing with the Private Eye. In the '90s i got to meet steve mann and play with the EyeTap prototypes. Those devices were like the "homebrew" personal computers of the 1970s. The Oculus Rift and the Cast AR headsets are probably more like the Commodore 64 and Atari 800.

We're just now starting to see what the applications are beyond games. And sure, VR could spend its entire life as a game technology and still be very interesting. But I think all of us want to see more from virtual and augmented reality.

Magic Leap has yet to release it's headset. Early reports say it's going to blow away the HoloLens and make us forget GoogleGlass ever existed. Maybe it will be the "IBM PC" of the AR/VR era.

But I keep thinking about how hopeful we were in the '70s and '80s about how computers would change our lives for the better. Sure, for the most part it's a big win, but it doesn't come without some drawbacks that were hard to imagine back then.

Virtual and Augmented reality is getting cheaper as time marches on. But let's not forget it's an immersive technology; even Google Glass(es) are not items which enable "casual" computing. It's going to be great for games, sure. But I'm a little bullish on some of the claims i'm hearing. They remind me of the old days when people said "oh! you can use your computer to balance your checkbook." -- Yes, you could use your computer to balance your checkbook, but until spreadsheets were ubiquitous, it was pretty onerous to load a checkbook program, load existing data from a cassette tape or floppy, then manually enter new transactions. It was simpler just to balance your checkbook by hand. Bank websites are the distant descendants of those checkbook programs, and they are very useful (though sometimes i worry about their security.)

In the same way I think we're at the beginning of understanding how augmented reality can improve day to day living. You don't have to be a cheerleader for AR; there are enough people out there who appreciate what it can do. If your business model assumes EVERYONE is going to buy a AR or VR headset for non-gaming purposes, you may want to rethink things a bit.

Sure, uptake of technology is now faster than in the old days, but it's still not instantaneous.

To review... VR is probably going to be a hit with gaming. VR for "serious" apps is going to be harder. Augmented Reality for gaming is going to be interesting, but i think we're still waiting to see the initial experiences that will drive adoption in the mass market. AR for "serious" apps is going to be hard, but probably not as hard as VR. There's a future in both technologies, but please stop over-promising on what AR and/or VR can and will deliver.


  1. "The Mess We're In" by Joe Armstrong [YouTube]