Virtual Reality: Not Now, Not Ever

John Carmack says VR is going to change the world. That ain't gonna happen. Here's why:

Zero mainstream non-gaming applications

The PC revolutionized the world because every office with a typewriter or a calculator eventually switched to a PC. Nearly every office function is augmented or replaced by a computerized version. A word processor is manifestly better than a typewriter. The calculator became a spreadsheet. The centerpiece of the meeting is a Powerpoint presentation; several participants are remote.

To suggest that something is going to be as big or bigger than the PC revolution, one must have in mind that whatever it is will augment or replace every PC. So what's the lady at the DMV going to do with a VR headset? Immerse herself in the web-based registration database?

Casual gaming is worth more than dedicated gaming

The biggest phenomenons in gaming of the last ten years were Angry Birds and Farmville. While gamer geeks obsess over technical specifications and drool over technology like the Oculus Rift, the rest of the world is quietly Candy Crushing at the DMV. If I can't play your game in a waiting room, I'm not going to play your game at all. This is the kind of fact that upsets the true believer, much like college students love to hate pop musicians for the sin of making fun, accessible music. The greater the love and technical finesse in a genre, the smaller the appeal, the higher the cost of bringing a new product to market, and the lower the revenue. Grand Theft Auto is a major outlier.

Looking like a tool = failure

Where have all those bluetooth headsets gone? Five years ago they were the unmistakable symbol of being serious business. Today they're the unforgivable mark of being a tool. People who still use them keep them politely in their shirt pocket when not in use. I wish I could say this is in response to the unbelievable rudeness of being one second away from answering your phone while conversing in person on a ten second delay, but I know the truth. They're just unfashionable. Using your touchscreen phone does not make you look like a tool.

We don't want more bandwidth with our tools

Someone tried to sell me on this technology with this: "Imagine a world in which you can actually lose track of, or be mistaken about exactly which level of simulation you're currently experiencing." Imagine all that, minus all your understanding of how computers work, minus your operational knowledge. This is a horror movie scenario, not a technology someone will buy for themselves to experience. Programmers and power users may imagine they want a higher bandwidth interface to the machine, but muggles want that about as badly as they want a higher bandwidth interface to their washing machine. Take your discomfort and square it? No thanks. The harder a tool is to put down, the more specialized it is, the less mass appeal it has.

Imagine the possibilities, man

Asking for examples how use outside gaming, I got a few good specialized ideas but mostly a bunch of bad ones.

  • Education. "Why would children watch a slideshow about ancient Egypt when they can walk in a digital recreation made by brilliant artists/game designers who worked with leading historians, archeologists, etc. I'll warrant that experiencing things 'first hand' will make people learn faster/better."

For one thing, comparing a musty, shitty old slideshow to a state-of-the-art, Hollywood-budgeted masterpiece isn't a fair comparison. As it happens, we already have something like that though: IMAX movies. And guess what? It's neither saving nor destroying education, and the idea that virtual reality might help it is assumed rather than proven.

To take a brief detour, everybody loves to complain about education, but where is the proof that what we have is a technical problem? I think technology is the one avenue to improving education that has actually been explored. A good half of teachers are complete technophobes, the other half are clearly tech-obsessed, yet the results speak for themselves. What is needed is individualized education from motivated educators not especially wedded to bureaucracy and non-educational goals (test results, raising costs, etc.) These are systemic problems that are totally orthogonal to technology. There is no technical problem with teaching, just systematized wrong incentives.

  • Training simulations.

Sure, but again, niche. The whole DMV office might have a need for one or two VR helmets at that point. They also only have one or two photocopiers—is that the kind of "change the world" we're talking about, with our big ol' teary puppydog eyes?

  • It's the next step after 2D displays. "If you look at human history, we started with writing, then newspapers, then radio, followed by television. The way in which we consume media hasn't changed from television/displays. Virtual reality is the next evolutionary step in media consumption. The final step being human-computer interfaces."

Something can be the "next step" and still not be the next "big thing." Writing is used for entertainment, but it's not solely useful for entertainment. 3D might be better if it were free, but as long as it comes with a helmet tax or a glasses tax the improvement will have to offset the cost. How will 3D improve the news or the sitcom?

It's helpful to compare to color. Color is a much bigger win than 3D, and it comes without imposing any nerd taxes. It isn't invasive, in the sense that I can just walk away from a color TV. I don't have to dismount or untangle myself or place anything in its charger. If there were a 3D TV I could just look at and see 3D, it would immediately destroy VR helmets and conventional 3D TVs. That would be a big advance, no question. But more than that, everything benefits from color: news, entertainment, information, emergency broadcasts, etc. The benefit of 3D is almost entirely limited to entertainment.

  • "Supposedly the porn industry is one of the largest drivers of technology when it comes to media consumption."

Invariably, somebody wants to bring up porn. To me, this is the least compelling capstone on the whole rickety arch. Your DVD player had a "Select Angle" button on it. This was added by the porn industry, for obvious reasons—let's face it, it would be a very odd cinematographic decision to provide the viewer with such options in a real movie. But notice your Blu-ray player does not have this button, because this feature was never used in real life.

I'm sure there are people who will be very interested in this application of technology. However, I doubt this will be a major driver of technological adoption. Everybody had a DVD player with the Select Angle button, but very few got that DVD player just to watch porn. Products that have such limited uses tend to be bought sparingly so as to fit in the sock drawer. The internet has already accomplished everything that can be hoped for vis-a-vis pornography.

  • It's a cost issue

The technologists pimping VR have always laid out some kind of bizarre assumption that everybody would buy a VR helmet if only it were cheaper or more accessible or there were more somethings taking advantage of it. But this is like saying everybody would buy books with six-foot pages if only the cost were low enough. After all, such a book would be so much more immersive—you certainly couldn't do anything else while reading it! Yet enormous books remain niche items, quietly resented by their owners for taking up too much shelf space and being too onerous for serious study on the toilet.

True technical innovation is mostly the drab story of accepting lower fidelity in exchange for secondary benefits. I'd much rather have a beautiful calligraphic script Bible written on the finest parchment than some movable type piece of junk with smeared ink and letters missing. Barring that, I'd much rather have a nice leather-bound edition on good quality acid-free paper with proper justification and footnotes, a beautiful font and proper ligatures. But apparently I'll settle for one with no ligatures at all, rendered in dark grey Times New Roman on a light grey background—if I can keep it with a few thousand of my other favorite books on a Kindle or a Nook. (The recharge time on a paper book is utterly unbeatable, though the backlighting is, for the most part, atrocious.)

  • But it's so much more real and immersive!

Have you noticed soap operas feel weird and unnatural for some reason you can't quite put your finger on? It's because they're recorded in a 60 frames per second video format, unlike theatrical releases, which are still shot in 24 frames per second. For whatever reason, 24 fps seems to put our minds in the right place for movies. Reviews of the new "Hobbit" movie were largely in agreement that the "high frame rate" edition was less pleasant, robbing the movie of its "cinematic look." Technical virtuosity may be incompatible with an immersive cinematic experience. Looking "better" made the movie worse.

We should not be too bothered by the idea that we have reached the limits of human perception with a particular medium. Audio CDs are essentially optimal for music. They encode much more than we can hear and stereo seems to be as much information as we need to reconstruct a reasonable semblance of depth. Competing platforms like SuperAudio haven't really gained any traction partly because nobody can hear a tangible difference. The bigger reason for their flop obviously being that they were superceded by a lower fidelity alternative with better secondary benefits: MP3s.

Right now the TV industry is trying to get us excited about the idea of 4K TVs which promise pixels so small we'd have to be inches from the screen to see them. At the proper viewing distance from a "normal" HD TV it would be impossible to see the pixels. Even streaming 720p to my 1080p TV I can see no discernible degradation of quality. Anyone trying to foist truly absurd levels of fidelity like 24/192 audio and 4K on us is missing the fact that people are watching movies on their phones and listening to music through bundled $10 earbuds, and perfectly happy about both. They will be using the next big thing, in home and office, working and playing.

A brief history of VR

Do you remember the video game Descent? It came out in 1994 and sported compatibility with several 3D systems of the day, like the iGlasses (no relation to Apple). We're talking resolutions in the 320x240 range. The game was kind of a big deal, but the iGlasses? Not a big hit.

What about the Virtual Boy? It came out in 1995 and I got one, absolutely loved it: real 3D in bright red on black. The manual had some puzzling health remarks though: take a break every hour, for instance, and even the games mandated it ("auto pause"). It also mentioned that you might get headaches from playing with it or nausea, and you should really stop if you have a seizure. Monochrome plus headaches equals a very small fan base.

Suppose you have a technology. Only one gender is interested in maximizing fidelity of their entertainment, so you've already eliminated half the population. Now remove the 10% that lack depth perception for whatever reason, and another 10% that get nauseated or simply don't like it. Cut it in half again to get the die-hard gamers. Now we're talking about 10-20% of the population who might desperately want one of these things. Now you have to make it affordable and compelling. This is looking less and less like a mass-market hit. Niche? Sure. Sustain a company or two? Maybe, sure. A world-changing industry? Extremely doubtful.


I have no idea what the next revolution in computing is, but I can tell you what it won't be: anything that "improves" something by raising its fidelity while making you look like a goober.

Read the original thread at HN.