VR Anticipation, and Oculus Rift vs. Google Glass

I’m not sure if the Rift or Project Morpheus are going to be huge but with the anticipation for their consumer releases, this is probably the first time VR has been really exciting for most geeks.

You can tell how big it’s going to be by the observation that people who try it get lost in it.  They put on the Rift and they emerge from it half an hour or hours later, completely unaware of how long they were wearing it and playing with it.  This is akin to when DOOM first came out (the id Software dudes Michael Abrash and John Carmack are involved in Oculus, so they anticipated that potential too), or Quake multiplayer, or the Civilization games, where you go play a short game and it ends up being 7 hours later and you don’t want to quit.  People will get lost in the rift.

Look at what people have said:

But Iribe couldn’t take his headset off. “Again,” he said, scarcely able to believe what he was asking for. They ran through the entire series once more. Finally Iribe took off the proto­type. His head felt strange—not dizzy, not displaced, but overwhelmed. “How long was I in there?” he asked Abrash and Binstock. It had been close to 45 minutes.

– from Peter Rubin’s Wired article which I’ve reread multiple times now

“Last time I was sick with the flu,” Carmack says, “I just lay in bed and watched VR movies on the ceiling.”

– Peter Rubin, Wired

This is no gimmick. This isn’t like 3D, where the difference to the viewer is a minor one. At worst, VR will be a niche format adopted by a handful of stalwart gamers. At best, we’re witnessing the birth of a significant new medium. Having seen its first baby steps, I want this technology to take giant leaps. I want to get lost in virtual reality. I want real-life Reginald Barclays to emerge just for the science-fictional thrill of it. Holo-addiction? Try Oculust.

Andrew Todd

At my old company, we got to demo an Oculus Rift HD that was displaying a 360-degree view of one of Beck’s concerts:


We took turns trying it out — people would watch for ages while the rest of us anxiously waited for them to be polite and finish.  It’s immersive and you’re so curious you can’t stop looking around.

Just check out the Node Studios guys playing beer pong and goofing around in the rift with a virtual hand interface add-on:

E3 2014

Oculus has had high visibility at the E3 gaming conference in past years — this year was no exception.  The Rift was adapted to the new Aliens game, where you have to stealthily avoid an Alien xenomorph.  The Rift seems perfectly suited to that experience: suspense, surround sound, 1st person.  Another game, Superhot, lets you dodge bullets by moving your head around them, similar to Neo in The Matrix.

When Facebook bought Oculus, I was pretty optimistic about it though I think the majority of people think it’s bad for Oculus’ future.  What I think is most interesting about it all is that it literally took just a little time for Mark Zuckerberg to meet Palmer Luckey (who is pretty goofy himself…) and then want to buy Oculus, even if it’s A) mostly unproven and B) not exactly aligned with Facebook’s core product.

If Facebook and Oculus are going to sell the Rift close to at cost, then perhaps that signifies that Facebook sees Oculus as a potential play to keep its userbase lost in the rift.  Facebook according to most stats is killing any other competitor in user time spent daily, and now it owns at least two of the other major players, WhatsApp and Instagram:

Even if you subtract from that a large portion of mainly mobile users, a rift that people are addicted to would be immensely addictive to people who spend a large part of their day socializing online.

Also we’re not quite at a point where you could serve up a rift off a mobile or even a tablet, but perhaps eventually you could.  I grew up romanticizing Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer but was always deathly afraid of the almost certain future of Hiro Protagonist going to his rented storage space to zone out in the rift for a day or two.

And that’s another aspect: the popular culture anticipating this kind of timesuck.  Think of TRON:


Or The Matrix, of course:


Johnny Mnemonic:

Pacific Rim’s drifting and neural handshaking:

The book Ready Player One, reinvented as inspiration for this Oculus Rift game:

The implementation I want to see most is from Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, which has a Darknet interfaced via glasses.  The glasses show peoples’ reputations, green paths leading to your location, even a way to perform alchemy on real-world objects and imbue them with special properties in the digital world (a real-world object being a key to somewhere else, for example), or showing what level of a profession someone has reached (so someone might be a level 7 farmer or a level 3 trader).  Those glasses were actually described as being subtle and hard to distinguish from actual glasses so I suppose Suarez saw them as more Glass than Rift (which was what Stephenson’s Metaverse equipment was more like).

The Rift vs. Glass

I see Google Glass as technology affecting culture, in the same way that adding a front-screen camera to the phone led to the phenomenon and official word creation of the selfie.  Glass has challenged accepted normal behavior in public settings: can you be recording in movie theaters, in a locker room, even just in a restaurant?  Are you a Glasshole just because you have the glasses on, even if you’re an experimenting artist or technologist?  Is it even legal to wear Glass to record interactions with police?  So far Glass has been rejected by social norms resoundingly, even amongst those who like the tech, just because it’s been associated with a “Glasshole” culture.

I think of anti-Glassholes as the new digital NIMBYs.  Digital NIMBYs are not, say, old folks who don’t like any new technology or who don’t think there’s a use for it.  Digital NIMBYs are actually fairly savvy with tech, having grown up with it, but they want to control their environment and the tech that exists within it to the extent that they believe they should dictate norms to others.  People who are proud to not have a TV, people who object to any cellphone use at all among others, people who want you to leave your cellphone with the others at the door, people who aren’t web developers but still scoff at IE users, that sort of thing.  Digitally savvy but not technically savvy.  Digerati, nimbies, whatever you want to call them.  They’re insufferable and they think they dictate tech culture.

But anyway Glass does bring about problems with cultural norms regarding eyesight.  We are told not to even look at others: homeless, children, people whose business isn’t yours, etc.  But Glass provides a possibility to record even a passing glance for future memory viewing.  This changes the whole security through obfuscation dynamic — instead of briefly viewing something with your eyes that you’ll soon forget, now every glance can be permanent.  That makes eyesight into a weapon in the same way that guys might ogle girls on the street.

Contrast with the Rift.  So far, the Rift looks almost comical to people not using it.  Someone has a Rift on and is cocking his head around and leaning about and looking behind himself, all with the headset on.  Most importantly and humorously, his eyesight is blocked and he can’t see what is actually going on around him.  Most importantly, he has become a complete non-threat to those around him, almost like a prisoner, without eyesight.  There’s no Rift asshole phenomenon yet, and I guess it’s because no one perceives a Rift user as a threat.

I imagine Oculus wants to enable some awareness for the user:

Oculus is also working on a second, outward-­facing camera that will be part of the headset itself. The Valve proto­type used such a camera to read fiducial markers on the walls for tracking, but Oculus seems to intend it for very different applications. For one, Carmack says, it can function as a pass-through camera, allowing Rift-wearing users to see what’s happening in the real world—a kind of external heads-up display that would allow you to grab a soda, for instance.

– from the Wired article

But I do think it’s interesting how eyesight augmentation between Glass and the Rift is perceived so much differently.  I’m anticipating consumer VR will lead to similar advancements in digital culture, and it seems like it will finally come soon.

P.S. As an aside, why is Keanu Reeves in two of these VR films?  Well, as you may know, I think Keanu Reeves is awesome, and I recently watched two of his latest films, 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi — I think he tends to enjoy roles where he’s cast as the outsider to a foreign world, with himself as the bridge hybrid (him being like a halfie, like me) between two worlds.  He’s played this role in at least: Dracula, 47 Ronin, The Matrix, Parenthood, Constantine, The Devil’s Advocate, The Replacements, and of course, Point Break.  Anyway, just a theory.