Version 7: The Next Next Thing
Sony PSVR2 early previews, Meta marketing incompetency, VR lab explosive package, Cognitive3D raises funds, and Dreamlite Valley hits 1M users
Welcome back to Threshold, your weekly guide to understanding "metaverse" ambitions from Big Tech and the path to commercial viability of AR/VR hardware for mainstream consumers. Lots happened last week in cyberspace, here's what mattered the most:
VR's Awkward Phase
Sony's upcoming PSVR2 headset made the gaming outlet rounds last week, with a few predictably rave reviews from the likes of Polygon and IGN. Yes, the fidelity will be better than the last one, but the controller design isn’t terribly new, and the question remains whether gamers will still want to pay a chunk of extra money just to play Horizon or Resident Evil in a headset (I might!). Forbes called the headset a "shallow novelty" and comically wrote that its tethered design was "like a leashed toddler to an exhausted mom."
The best analysis of PSVR2 thus far though was from WIRED's Gadget Lab podcast last week, where Lauren Goode opened with the question "When was the last time you hung out with a friend in VR?" During the podcast, the hosts analyzed VR's "awkward phase" and what it would take to for headset sales to go from its current ~10M unit niche to a more mainstream 100M. I agree with most of their suggestions that headsets need to "look cool" and that their awkwardness is the biggest barrier. VR still asks users to surrender to its "dorky headset, flailing around, waving controllers." Goode jokes that enterprise companies will often go through all this extra work of setting up a headset when "we could have just Zoomed."
I've noticed in advertisements and media culture lately that this is how VR is often portrayed: a person blindly and awkwardly flailing about while others laugh on. While it’s good that VR is being mentioned in the culture at all, I wonder if it’s doing more harm than good. Even Doja Cat contributed with one of the best roasts of all time:
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WIRED is probably right that VR is more about "the next next thing" and what we have currently is an awkward phase of hardware that is often more trouble than its worth. It's possible that VR may never work as a mainstream technology, and it instead might be bridge for the next thing that lacks its awkwardness, and is far cooler.
BGR published a great thought piece last week on AR glasses and Apple's potential path to launching them using the Hulu show "The First" as inspiration. They wrote about the concept, "The characters use all sorts of smart devices to work and communicate. And the AR glasses in these screenshots get prime placement. They’re almost always in use, combined with wireless earphones. And there’s no smartphone in sight."
When it comes to AR glasses aspirations, Quartz last week pointed out how Meta has always struggled with marketing its hardware products, especially its recent Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses. They wrote, "Hardware and software, it increasingly seems, demand different marketing competencies. Meta has excelled at selling and growing its software platforms— Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp—but when it comes to mobile hardware, the company’s ability to sign up billions of users has thus far fallen short."
I worked on the Facebook Portal for a couple years during the height of the pandemic, and its marketing certainly didn't align to the real problems people were having at the time. We even partnered with the NHS in the UK, and we found it had huge utility for family of elderly citizens recently isolated in their living facilities. Instead of telling that story though, Facebook marketed cooking classes with Muppets. The problem is Meta, fka Facebook, often tries so hard to be cool that they deviate from the truly emotional and heartfelt stories of the people that rely on their services.
Which is why Apple, with all its marketing history and effective internal organization structure, will be much better positioned to sell any AR/VR hardware it designs. As Quartz put it, "Mobile hardware is Apple’s strong suit. Had the tech company partnered with Ray-Ban on a pair of smart glasses, instead of Meta, it’s difficult to imagine that the product wouldn’t be on the faces of millions of consumers right now."
As Meta moves to seed its idea of the metaverse with its latest series of futuristic ads, we'll know soon if those ideas resonate with consumers via their willingness to invest in the hardware needed for the next next thing.
VR Lab Explosion
In weirdest news of last week, a package addressed to the Immersive Media Lab at Northeastern University detonated and injured one campus employee. CNN wrote, "Several federal law enforcement sources told CNN the package contained a rambling note that criticized Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the relationship between academic institutions and the developers of virtual reality." However, it was later suspected that the incident was a possible stunt, and is being investigated for inconsistencies in the employee's story.
As someone that managed a popular university VR lab in the past, I can say we received a lot of weird inquiries. VR is a concept that some fixate on with deep attachment (myself included, perhaps), and when the reality doesn't quite pan out the way some imagined, it can be frustrating. Regardless of this being a possible stunt or not, I think it signals larger disappointment in the direction of the ecosystem. Ironically, the targeting of academic institutions doing needed research on the technology has the opposite effect. I’m curious to see how this one pans out.
Basic Immersive Rights
Last week Cognitive3D, a Canadian startup, raised a $2.5M Seed round to bring better spatial analytics to AR/VR applications like training. This is something I've long wanted to do, and I like that as a 7-year startup, Cognitive has survived as long as it has. Yet along with more intricate data collection, comes with more privacy concerns. The company is rightly working on user consent and "Do Not Track" protocols, but those aren't always required outside of academic research with institutional review boards.
VentureBeat dove into the ethical foundations for "basic immersive rights" last week, and they included concepts like: experiential authenticity, emotional privacy, and behavioral privacy. All three address how in an immersive 3D world, it's much easier to target a user with because of how much data is available about their emotional or cognitive state. Computers are of course doing this IRL now too with computer vision, but the difference is how in a real-time computing setting (like a game engine), it's possible to adjust the rendered imagery based on that input data. They suggest defining what an "incognito mode" looks like here, and attempt to build that in as the default.
I once requested my Fortnite in-game dataset from Epic Games under GDPR, and it was crazy how intricate it was. I'm guessing Epic knows exactly what kind of player I am, how much I'm willing to spend in their item shop, and when I spend those dollars based on my performance or actions in the game. I trust that the company won't compromise the integrity of the Battle Royale mode to sell me more skins, but they likely know what nudges work. Meta clearly is working towards this endgame with Horizon Worlds via their early work with brands like Wendy's and NBA. How can startups like Cognitive3D promise they won't make things worse when that's the product they're selling?
1M Disney Dreamers
In the world of content, Disney made the insane announcement that already 1M users have played its Dreamlite Valley in less than a week. Compare that to Horizon Worlds, which has struggled to bring in 300K users since it launched last December. That's the power of Disney and the casual market of gamers looking for something chill with a brand and characters they love (I audibly squealed when WALL-E arrived in my village).
Disney CEO Bob Chapnek said in a recent interview, "we have before us an opportunity to turn what was a movie-service platform to an experiential platform and give them the ability to ride Haunted Mansion from a virtual standpoint." Given ~90% of Disney fans won't be able to experience a physical park, unfortunately Dreamlite Valley might be the next best thing.
When I was little, our family couldn't afford to go to Disneyland that often, so instead we would watch a “A Day at Disneyland” on VHS on repeat. It was the best we could do, and by watching that tape it really felt like I was there. My guess is this is only the start of what "reality privilege" divides are beginning with digital offerings for those that increasingly can't afford physical ones, and AR/VR will play a big role in that.
Quote of the Week
"The next world is my boss's asshole." - Rogue message from Wizard101 MMO hack (PC Gamer)
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