At CES 2019, VR feels like a dream gathering dust

Commentary: When I first laid eyes on the Oculus Rift in 2013, it felt like the future. Six years on, VR is a promise unfulfilled.

Mark Serrels Editorial Director
Mark Serrels is an award-winning Senior Editorial Director focused on all things culture. He covers TV, movies, anime, video games and whatever weird things are happening on the internet. He especially likes to write about the hardships of being a parent in the age of memes, Minecraft and Fortnite. Definitely don't follow him on Twitter.
Mark Serrels
5 min read
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In January 2013, I used an Oculus Rift development kit for the first time. It felt like someone had traveled back in time and given me the keys to the future.

Back then I expected virtual reality headsets would be as common as mobile phones within six years. I expected the technology would evolve so rapidly we couldn't keep up. The problems that were so clear back then -- the cables, the motion sickness, the weight, movement in virtual spaces -- would be swept aside effortlessly and we would bask in virtual utopias the likes of which our primitive brains could barely comprehend.

Years from now, I thought, this headset will gather dust in my attic. I'd stumble across it like a historical artifact, like an ancient mobile phone, and marvel at its size, the clunkiness. "Can you believe we used to wear these?" I'd say. We'd laugh at the cables and the computers they were attached to. I was convinced our collective imaginations would soar past the obstacles.

But it's 2019. I'm at CES , and VR is an idea gathering dust for all the wrong reasons, lost in a sea of strange peripherals and pipe dreams. Self-contained VR devices, like Oculus Quest and the newly announced HTC Vive Cosmos, are en route, but it feels too little, too late. VR has lost the attention of mainstream audiences. 

In 2019, VR is a sideshow in a theme park, a marketing stunt, a slide in a PR PowerPoint presentation, a niche hobby for people locked in rooms with a ton of money to spend, and -- worse -- no one seems to know what direction we're headed in, or even what virtual reality should be.

It's so goddamn disappointing.

I just watched a video my friends and I made in 2013, when we first got a hands-on with an Oculus Rift dev kit.

Sweet summer children, we could barely contain ourselves.

In our excitement to share virtual reality, to share this idea, we literally got in a car and drove to our friends' houses to show them the Oculus Rift, to try to just express our enthusiasm for this strange object from the future.

We chattered like chimpanzees. The concepts just spilled out. What about virtual tourism? What if we could put a 3D camera in every home and just teleport there with VR? What if these devices could get so small and seamless we could wear them on the bus? What if VR was just a pair of sunglasses you wore on a sunny day?

What about the goddamn video games !?

We fought through motion sickness, we picked up toy guns and pretended to shoot them in Team Fortress. All the while we grappled with the idea that incredibly smart people all over the world were having the same discussions, in more sophisticated ways, and were already on their way to making virtual reality the next big thing that would transform our lives.

It seems almost embarrassing in hindsight, but we had precedent. In seven years, I had gone from playing Snake on my Nokia 3310 to owning an iPhone with a fully activated touchscreen and video games that would melt my brain. I went from carrying CD players in my jeans pocket to MP3 players that contained more music than I could ever listen to. We'd witnessed change at a rapid pace. Why would VR be any different?

But it was and it is. And I'm still not 100 percent sure why.

During a CES panel called "AR-VR-MR Think Tank," a group of new-media executives talked shop about the various benefits of the different realities. You could sense the malaise around VR, and the frustrations around its slow progress.

"The good news is that Facebook bought Oculus," joked John Canning, an executive producer at Digital Domain. "The bad news is that Facebook bought Oculus."


Beat Saber might be the best game available on VR right now.

Beat Games/PlayStation

The problem, the panel argued, is that VR hasn't been given the time it needs to evolve in secret.

There seems to be a consensus that we were sold the idea of VR as a consumer product a little too early, and in the context of 2019, that makes perfect sense. We're still trying to figure out how this stuff works, and ideas seem thin on the ground.

"Everyone thought VR would be in their backpack by now," said Tony Parisi, the head of AR/VR brand solutions at Unity, "but it didn't play out that way."

At CES this year, products tied to VR seem familiar and dull. Hand controllers, not unlike the Oculus Touch or PlayStation Move, and primitive foot controllers allow us to move in strange ways through 3D space. Predictable (yet necessary) evolutions in software and online interfaces. Slightly more high-tech perhaps, but hardly the game-changers required to kick-start the VR revolution.

Wireless iterations are significant steps forward, sure. And headsets like the HTC Vive Cosmos and the Oculus Quest will hopefully make VR more palatable to mainstream audiences. But it isn't enough. It just isn't. We're not inspiring wonder here. We aren't changing lives. We aren't delivering the grand promise of VR.

The concepts seem small. VR is now being bundled alongside augmented reality and mixed reality like a middle stepchild that's become comfortable being pushed around by his siblings. Facebook bought Oculus but has struggled since then. Samsung doesn't seem committed to Gear VR like it once was. Venture capital dollars are leaving by the millions. Whether it's a lack of consumer demand or a lack of enthusiasm on the back end, everyone seems to be backing away slowly from VR, Homer Simpson-style

VR feels like it's about to embark on one helluva nap.

It's a story as old as technology. In some shape or form we've been dreaming about VR for as long as we've been projecting images. In the 1960s, Morton Heilig built the Sensorama. You stuck your head in a box and experienced five short films designed to engage all five senses. In the '70s and '80s, we used primitive VR to train doctors and astronauts. I'm old enough to remember the '90s and the expensive VR arcade attractions built by Sega. I'm old enough to have witnessed the cycle play out.

For decades, VR has made a habit of emerging, head above the parapet, in an attempt to make our collective dreams come true, before withdrawing upon discovering the technology isn't quite there yet.

Right now it feels like we're at the tail end of yet another cycle. We aren't ready -- the world isn't ready -- to make our VR dreams a reality. The only thing to do now is do the groundwork out of sight, make those incremental improvements like HTC and Oculus are working through, then re-emerge when there's something worthy of everyone's attention.

VR isn't dead. That's a silly thing to say. Ideas as perpetual as VR don't die, they simply go into hibernation before being lifted off the shelf, dusted off and reintroduced as a brand-new dream, a renewed promise waiting to be fulfilled.

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