A salient warning about “social VR”?

Will social VR of the kind currently being developed really be what a mass market is looking for? (image via Upload VR)

Balaji Krishnan appears to be a man on a mission: to offer a wake-up call to those engaged in the nascent world of “social VR” that the kind of future they’re chasing might not exist. He’s most notably pursuing this mission in op-ed pieces. In March he put his case Upload VR under the succinct title: In Why Social VR Probably Won’t Work the Way Social VR Developers Think, (subsequently reprinted on May 1st by PSFK.com). In April he followed it up with a more targeted piece for VentureBeat: Sorry, Zuck: AR & VR won’t replace TVs or phones.

In the first article Krishnan – the founder and CEO of Dabkick, which credits itself as developing the first “true Social VR experience“, states his case pretty clearly through the title of the Upload VR article: that social VR may not work the way most “social VR” developers – he notes Valve, High Fidelity, AltSpace VR, Linden Lab and Facebook in particular – expect.

Balaji Krishnan

This is not to say he thinks these will fail; rather than they won’t achieve the kind of mass-market prevalence we’ve seen with the likes of smartphones – the technology VR is often touted against as having the same disruptive potential.

Now, to be fair, I don’t agree with all of his points. In particular, the slow growth in the volumes of shipped headsets to date is not indicative that they won’t grow faster in the future; particularly as the technology finds its footing and the price-point computational power required for high-end systems comes down and overall quality and ergonomics of headsets improves with future generational developments. But – and here’s where I do agree with Krishnan: the hardware and the price-point aren’t the key to getting VR to appeal to a mass market.

Rather, the key to getting VR viral in the manner of smartphones is presenting it as having a convenient relevance to people – whether as a source of entertainment or social engagement or business or gaming or whatever – that’s important. And that’s actually a tough nut to crack.

The pervasiveness of smartphones is in part down to their sheer convenience and in part down to the organic way in which their capabilities have naturally grown to encompass applications and uses outside of voice communication. In trying to find the “killer app” for VR, it feels as if it is being forced down various paths in which it is unlikely to succeed in the same way as the smartphone (image via the BBC)

Take smartphones for example – as Krishnan does.That they have become a central pillar of many people’s social activities, spawning an entire ecosystem of applications and opportunities for sharing and creative experience wasn’t planned or engineered from the outset. It came about because someone realised that just as MP3 players could offer music on the go, then so could a ‘phone. And if you stuck a camera on a ‘phone, people might like to take pictures with it. It was an organic process – one which never lost sight of the ‘phone original intent: a convenient means of communicating, and built on that convenience over time until the smartphone became an indispensable part of our daily lives.

DabKick’s “social VR experience”

However you look at it, VR isn’t anywhere close to the ubiquitous nature of something like a smartphone – nor, really, can it be.  So trying to present or engineering a future where it can be is perhaps shooting wide of the mark. And really, the idea of “social VR” is another way of trying to engineer a future for VR which might not really stand up to the litmus test of what a “mass market” actually wants.

As it is, we’ve had around a decade of organic development and growth of a “digital social ecosystem”; one that offers many, many ways of engagement which are flexible enough to meet our needs wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing.  Krishnan argues that if “social VR” is to succeed, it must feed into this ecosystem, nurture it, support it and add value to it; seeking to simply “revolutionise” it isn’t enough. It must be intuitive enough to be used quickly, easily and conveniently wherever someone is and whatever they might otherwise be doing. if not, then it’s unlikely to spark people’s imaginations enough to buy into it as massively as is hoped.

So where does that leave something like Sansar? On the one hand, and as I’ve oft stated, it is pretty clear that there are markets where VR can have a significant impact. As such, if Linden Lab can hit all the desired nails on the head, then the platform could enjoy considerable success within those markets. On the other, the idea that it could become a broad-based “social” environment, outside of very specific use-cases, perhaps doesn’t stand up so well, for the reasons outlined above. Simply put; people can already undertake wide-ranging social activities through digital means, individually and collectively; simply dangling “VR” in front of them may not necessarily persuade them they need to change how they’re doing so.

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8 thoughts on “A salient warning about “social VR”?

    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Every house could have one…. if you have the space… or are willing to move impeding furniture out of the way, spend the time making sure your sensor systems / glasses, etc., are still correctly calibrated, and you’re out to be truly immersed in something – a game, a historical recreation, a virtual visit to a far-off or exotic place, etc., – then yes.

      BUT … for social interactions with your cousin on the other side of the country, or for calling-up a friend and wishing them a happy birthday or simply spending face time over long distances, when there are so many other, quicker and easier ways of doing these things already? Most people (outside of those of us already familiar with virtual environments or converted to the idea of VR) might find the VR aspect hardly worth the effort given they already have other more convenient means of achieving the same result.

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      1. the dune mouse (CybeleMoon)

        Inara, I was remembering an old story in an anthology by Ray Bradbury where I believe the children had a nursery that was virtual reality. They could turn it on and off into different environments! So a glimpse of things to come so to speak.

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        1. Inara Pey Post author

          I think that’s The Veldt 🙂

          Doubtless “holoroom” style environments will come in time… but not for decades. In the meantime, and for entertainment value, the “out-of-home” experience for VR sounds far more entertaining (particularly “socially”!) than a DIY home-set-up 🙂

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  1. Richard A Goldberg

    I agree that social VR may be the tail wagging the dog. The strength of VR is unprecedented immersion for many specific uses in training, education, storytelling, and entertainment. These activities are not specifically ‘social VR’ but represent important and significant activity and markets. Like any tool, VR will have its place but will not replace existing ‘perfect’ tools like the wireless mobile phone.
    As the VR technology progresses though, I could see putting on my wireless VR ‘reading’ glasses while using my phone to view content or a VR skype call. There is no need to make VR the operating system as Real LIfe 3D is unbeatable for resolution, ease of use and cost!

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      “The strength of VR is unprecedented immersion for many specific uses in training, education, storytelling, and entertainment.”

      Agreed, and those are some of the areas (together with training, simulation, architecture, and (to a point) healthcare) where I see VR and a low-cost, low barrier to entry environment such as Sansar having huge potential. Particularly if the Lab do make Sansar Spaces “white Label” environments for clients, as was hinted at fairly early on. That’s what I mean about specific niches, rather than some kind of broad-level mass market appeal 🙂 .

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