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AR/VR Needs a Walkman

Christmas 2019 was a milestone for AR/VR. We saw one of the biggest jumps in AR/VR usage ever, at least in relative terms. Gaming continues to drive this trend, and meaningful support from platforms like steam have made a difference. This milestone appears to be significant in terms of sustainability. Most every holiday we see cutting edge toys making a splash only to spend the rest of the new year completely listless. But according to Steam surveys, AR/VR games continue to see action beyond the holidays.

And Steam is not the only game in town for AR/VR hardware. Google is also making significant advancements in AR/VR hardware by introducing support for WebXR in the Chrome web browser, including support for Android devices. With well over 2.5 billion Android devices in the wild, this obviously opens the potential footprint for AR/VR supported devices by several orders of magnitude.

Now all this burgeoning of AR/VR hardware devices out in the hands of consumers does not guarantee mainstream adoption of the tech. VR headsets could just as easily be sitting on the shelf. And just because your phone does realty doesn’t mean that you do. For the longest time, it seemed like lack of quality content was really holding AR/VR back from mainstream adoption. And it wasn’t just about the number and variety of titles, but genuine quality was not really there for AR/VR media content. But now this is also changing significantly. Again, a sort of AR/VR Renaissance around the holidays of 2019 saw several high quality AR/VR titles released, notably Half-Life: Alyx.

Despite all this good news, it appears that the content first approach is not working. Even with all this encouraging uptake of AR/VR, it is still well and truly stuck in “Innovation Trigger” on the proverbial Gartner Hype Cycle. And it turns out that content is not necessarily required to ignite mass consumer adoption after all. The best example of this is the iPhone. When the iPhone was first released in 2007, it did not even have an app store! There were no massive content media content libraries of music, books, videos, or games to motivate consumer adoption. And yet it’s still sold like crazy, as we all know very well by now.

No, a broad distribution channel is what virtual reality really needs. And while the iPhone indeed proves this out, the iPhone itself is a poor role model for AR/VR hardware. The iPhone was revolutionary from a technical capability perspective to be sure. But the form factor was more evolutionary in nature. No doubt that it was a beautiful device to behold, with unparalleled build quality to match. But at the time of the iPhone launch, handheld mobile devices of similar size, shape, weight, and even form factor were ubiquitous. This is not the case for AR/VR hardware. There are no such mass-marketed widely used AR/VR devices in the world today. 

The AR/VR devices that we have at our disposal today are clunky at best, and downright ridiculous annoying cumbersome in many cases. Of course it’s natural and expected for new technologies to be rough around the edges at first. A great example of it technology that was clunky and full of shortcomings when it first came out was the Sony Walkman. Sure, it was not the most elegant device, had a short battery life and tangly cords among other quirks. But it was easy to use, and easy to put away. 

VR headsets are neither of those things. 

It is not just that this hardware is cumbersome, the reality is that it gets in the way of our real world before we can even find our way to the virtual world. Have you tried a VR headset? It separates you enough from your real world surroundings to be disconcerting, but does not offer an alternate reality familiar enough to be comforting. And that’s when you’re at home – it’s unimaginable to use a VR headset while we’re out and about, as we would with all other consumer technologies that have gone mobile long ago. The AR/VR glasses do not solve this problem either, small flickery images distract more than augment. 

What’s really holding up AR/VR is interference with our normal everyday real world experiences.  This interference is not something that the technology can evolve itself out of, it’s is going to take a revolutionary solution to cross the chasm here. 

A Walkman of AR/VR is what we need. Easy on, easy off in an instant. While in use there is enough connection with our surroundings to maintain comfortable familiarity. 

While we ponder what out-of-the-virtual-box innovation might eliminate the interference of AR/VR devices, let’s enjoy a Fusion of The Smashing Pumpkins | 1979:

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