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VR's biggest challenge has nothing to do with technology

Commentary: To my family, no matter what their age, VR is magic... but it takes someone to put it on their heads in the first place.

Scott Stein/CNET

"Oh my god, it's so cool!"

This was my 5-year-old niece. I realized I had somehow let her try on the plastic set of goggles I had already slipped onto the faces of my 7-year-old son and my 8-year-old nephew. They grabbed for the virtual-reality headset. "My turn!" Each of them wanted to spend just a few seconds in a virtual river app called Eden River. You'd watch yourself slowly floating down a river, looking around at the trees, the rocks, the fish in the water.

"Careful," I said, making sure they took it off properly. They held the goggles up to their eyes, like a magic mask. My littlest niece nearly fell over, she was so disoriented and giddy. This is where I felt guilty. These kids were too young for something like VR. And this was Thanksgiving, a time for family, unplugging. Here I was, the candy-man of new technology, placing a giant white plastic set of phone-goggles over each of them: Samsung Gear VR, with a big Galaxy Note 5 phone inside, powering it. My wife gives me a look: She doesn't approve of any of this. Especially not on a holiday.

But they loved it. Their eyes were wide, unbelieving. My nephew insisted we try the "Jurassic World" experience, where a sleeping apatosaurus slowly woke up and leaned its giant head over to sniff at the virtual viewer. They screamed and laughed like they were on a theme park ride. Then they tried a game flying a plane with their heads through a canyon. Everyone wants to try it at once, even the grownups. Suddenly I'm wondering what I've introduced.

This is where virtual reality is right now: an awkward technology few have tried, but those who have are amazed by it. Most tech I show my family, year in and year out -- smartwatches, tablets, phones -- doesn't impress them. They're as jaded about tech as I am. Virtual reality is impressive to me, and I've gotten used to it. But to newcomers, it's the stuff of pure astonishment.

I try to hold onto this as I watch my family get sucked in. Is this a hugely addictive technology? Or is it a sign of how important it will become? I slowly, and firmly, separate the giddy kids from their magic VR glasses. "It's time for dinner." I did this last year, during Hanukkah, with the original Gear VR Innovator Edition, showing my family virtual reality for the first time. I watched them explore virtual aquariums, imaginary movie theaters, giant solar systems. A year later, it's no less amazing.

Scott Stein/CNET

I show my brother-in-law's mother Cirque du Soleil's "Kurios," a 360-degree theatrical performance. I tighten the straps carefully across her forehead. She gasps, smiles. She tries reaching for performers who aren't there. And as I then show her Netflix and its virtual living room, she realizes that she's in a place where she can look around in all directions, and her mouth gapes. She sees the virtual remote control on the virtual sofa. She tries to touch it. "How do I move around?"

I explain to her, and to my nephew and niece, that you can't move around. Not yet. You move your head. You look. You use the touchpad on the side of your head to interact with things, which everyone finds completely confusing. No one understands how the touchpad works, or where its edges are.

But give people a physical controller -- a gamepad very similar to that of the PlayStation or Xbox -- and they're fine. I give my sister the wireless gamepad and show her Oculus Arcade, and she's standing in front of a virtual arcade machine playing Pac-Man. She likes it. My son and nephew take to it like it's second nature. My son figures out the controls and is playing for minutes...I disconnect him, because I'm worried it's going on for too long and I can't see what he's looking at.

Magical, and a bit unnerving

Virtual reality is in that way rather disturbing. You stay disconnected from others, in a personal space no one else can see. It seems like the antithesis of family. But it's also something that everyone loved. They laughed. They were astonished. It was magic.

I can't say how many technological experiences approach pure magic, but it's close to none. 3D movies are sometimes fun; smartwatches are exciting to no one, based on how my family reacts at least. The hugely successful Nintendo Wii was maybe the last magic thing I've let people try. The motion controls in Wii Sports seemed like they were doing impossible things: play tennis, or go bowling. VR reminds me of that.

My mom half-remembered her demo last year, when I showed her a virtual aquarium and the Oculus Video movie theater. This time I show her the Bill Clinton documentary, "Inside Impact: East Africa," a short 360-degree film shot by Felix & Paul Studios. She immediately starts examining the antiques in his office. She comments on how thin Clinton looks. My brother-in-law tries Gunjack, a space shooter, and wonders when this tech will be available for sports games or for recording 360-degree videos of places you've been. I tell him it's probably on its way, soon enough.

The kids asked to try the magic goggles again later. My mom and my brother's mother-in-law were fine with their brief demo. My brother-in-law asked about what VR devices are coming out soon, and I gave him the rundown: a lot.


Oculus Rift will go on sale sometime in 2016.

James Martin/CNET

In 2016 alone there will be the full-fledged Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for PC gamers, PlayStation VR for the PlayStation 4, as well as new software for Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR phone viewers. And, undoubtedly, new cameras -- some of which will be priced for everyday people to buy -- that will shoot better 360-degree video. Gear VR is like the gateway drug: it shows the possibilities. It makes people believe. And maybe buy.

After telling my brother-in-law that PlayStation VR is coming next year, he sounded that much more curious about buying a PS4. He won't be the only one. Mass appeal for virtual reality is very real. It may not translate into everyone buying it, but everyone's already curious about trying it...if they know what it is.

When I got home to my mother's house, where I was staying for the weekend, I saw a folded cardboard box on her kitchen counter. I showed my mom: "You have one of these." She didn't know what it was, and I unfolded the box into a pair of VR goggles. It was the New York Times Google Cardboard viewer sent out to New York Times subscribers last month. I asked if she knew about the Times and VR; she didn't. I downloaded the NYT VR app on her iPhone, and dropped it into the Cardboard viewer. I played part of "The Displaced," the documentary film that's part of the Times' VR-ready video offerings, and let her hold the little box to her eyes. She was astonished that it worked with her phone, and that it she had a little VR player in her home already. Would she actually use it again? Probably not. And she didn't even know she had one.

That's the challenge that VR still faces: it's fun when someone puts it on your face, but will anyone try it on their own... or even know what it does?

Editors' note: This story was originally published on December 2, 2015 under another headline. It is otherwise unchanged from that original version.