Virtual Reality’s Future Hinges on Presence and Patience

on Tuesday, Sep. 23rd

There are two reoccurring themes in the reports out of this past weekend’s Oculus Connect developers conference in Hollywood.

The first is disappointment that virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR didn’t announce a release date for the first commercial version of their Rift hardware. The second is that the latest prototype has achieved a level of that elusive experience known as “presence” that pretty much blows everything up until now out of the water.

For the record: I didn’t get the try the “Crescent Bay” prototype hardware this weekend. (Spoiler Alert: I didn’t get to go to Oculus Connect, but that’s not an interesting story.) The language being bandied about the new Rift, however, reminds me of my time with the Atlas system over a year ago and in Nonny de la Pena’s lab at USC. That’s because for the first time Oculus showed an official demo for a standing experience with the Rift. Let me tell you: the difference between sitting in a chair and walking around in VR is…

Well, that’s the problem. I can tell you that it is “night and day” or that you “will feel like you are there,” yet neither of those capture the actual essence. Presence is a tricky thing to get right, as Wired’s Peter Rubin puts it in his write-up of the new gear, when he points out that presence is not a matter of any particular tech that makes for a compelling experience:

The one thing that matters is whether or not all those dimensions can come together to deliver presence. I’ve experienced that presence before; I can tell the difference. And as much as I’ve enjoyed the DK2, it was never quite able to recapture that magic. Crescent Bay did.

Just as clear to me is that the skeptical reaction of The Daily Dot’s Dennis Scimeca who, like me, did not attend Connect, is based on his never having experienced presence:

Oculus trotted out a new buzzword at Oculus Connect, “presence,” which is ostensibly the idea that VR rigs can give players the distinct feeling of occupying a space. Game developers can already do wonderful things to trick us into thinking we’re seeing in three dimensions, even though the image is only being conveyed in two. P.T. conveyed a ton of presence, even if I was just looking at a television screen.

Scimeca’s essay is a valuable part of the dialog over VR, because presence is so elusive. His major issue is that his glasses don’t fit inside the Rift goggles, and that’s no minor thing. Ease of use is incredibly important for developing an audience for what is essentially a new medium.

If someone can’t use a VR headset properly they have no hope of experiencing this somewhat ephemeral state of “being” in another place. This is how Scimeca is able to dismiss “presence” as a buzzword. That’s all it is to someone who hasn’t experienced it: a term with no real reference point.

The biggest skeptics of VR as a medium are those who either haven’t yet tried out the gear or those who have and have not been able to experience presence. The first problem has a direct solution: get the head mounted displays into the wild. Which is where the frustration with a lack of a release date comes into play.

Oculus VR is in an odd position. They started out as an enthusiast project that blossomed into a crowdfunding success story before getting plucked by a Silicon Valley titan. They have been in public beta mode for just around a year and a half now, not realistically long enough to launch a computing revolution. Unfortunately 18 months is long enough for a hype train to grow cold.

While gamers are used to five year cycles from product announcement to delivery the gadget press exists in an annualized space. New toys are required every year. A series of improving prototypes feels less dynamic.

(There’s also the whole issue of crowdfunding seen as a pre-order instead of a pledge held against a promise, something that has popped up in gaming circles. Oculus has fulfilled its Kickstarter obligations by this point, but that didn’t prevent some backers from being upset that the company “sold out” to Facebook.)

It can’t help that Sony is breathing down the neck of Oculus with its Project Morpheus VR prototype for the insanely popular Playstation 4 console. I say “insanely” advisedly, because even Sony executives don’t know why it is selling so well. Getting trapped in a hardware race, even an illusory one, has felled more than one video game giant.

Until more hardware can get out into the world there’s little hope of turning skeptics into believers. Even then the adoption of VR as a platform has the potential to look more like the PC revolution than the smartphone one: a slow but steady push towards ubiquity as the new paradigm gets accepted.

For that paradigm to set, the tech press is going to have to curb their instinct to declare a final verdict on VR until the hardware has a chance to mature.

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