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Virtual Reality: Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid Yet

In the scheme of all that Google has going on, Google Glass isn’t exactly a pressing concern. Nevertheless, the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday provided a sobering moment when CFO Patrick Pichette made what may have been Google’s most candid acknowledgment yet that the highly anticipated product was a disappointment. “In those situations where projects don’t have the impact we hope for, we do take the tough calls, we make the decision to cancel them, and you’ve seen us do this time and time again,” he said.

What makes such a setback remarkable is the enormous hoopla that greeted Google Glass, not to mention competing products from other companies, only to watch them fail to fulfill their promise. And though only a fool would count out optical wearables for the long term, Google’s retrenchment is a potent reminder of something the tech sector never seems to remember: hype is not a guarantor of success.

It’s a lesson that should be heeded by another new industry category: virtual reality. Not since Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR reignited interest in a technology that has been struggling for decades has the buzz been as deafening as it grew in January. By providing showcases to VR hardware and content, the International Consumer Electronics Show and Sundance Film Festival bookended a month of near nonstop announcements that included the likes of Vice Media and Annapurna Pictures pledging to get into the space. Microsoft’s surprise announcement of its Hololens also presented a different approach to a market already being seeded by Samsung, Sony and more.

What’s most interesting of all for Hollywood is that the initial conventional wisdom that gaming would be more of a killer app than entertainment for VR already seems to be shifting, a sentiment Oculus execs expressed themselves upon introducing Story Studio, an in-house production for VR content.

VR is burning so hot right now it’s only natural to presume it’s going to explode in the marketplace this year. And yet not only do I think that’s not going to happen, but 2015 could very well be remembered as yet another false start in this ballyhooed technology’s tortured history.

All this isn’t to say that VR isn’t impressive or that the technology is doomed to extinction due to some fundamental flaw. I’m as bullish about VR as the next person but there’s a potentially much longer time horizon that needs to be taken into consideration by anyone sticking a toe into this business, contrary to all the breathless huzzahs at this point.

As with any new technology trying to prove its viability, the passion VR’s believers have as they evangelize can be seductive. But it’s time to throw some cold water on their Kool-Aid.

Over the past six months, I’ve had the privilege of sitting through about 10 different VR demos showcasing various devices and content. To praise or criticize any individual demo is pointless because they are all proof-of-concept at this point.

Regardless, they all left the same twofold impression on me: 1) a moment of gee-whiz wonderment at the novelty of such a transportive experience, that leaves my mind reeling at the future possibilities of VR. 2) a longer-lasting skepticism as to how that wonderment translates in the near term into inducing a meaningful segment of the populace to buy a device and consume VR content on a regular basis.

There’s a few key factors that give me pause about VR going anywhere soon.

Not sure what VR content is exactly. Most of the VR content I’ve sampled is an amorphous short-form “experience” that doesn’t dazzle me enough with its verisimilitude to compensate for the absence of a conventional beginning-middle-end narrative. While that doesn’t mean VR needs to correspond to the shape stories take in early mediums or even be a story at all, the most intuitive next steps should bemusing it  a value-added layer to existing content (i.e. watching sports in VR) or be extensions to that content. VR is searching for a format, and my gut tells me that search is going to take a long time.

I really don’t want to strap a brick to my face. Even if the content itself was perfection, all the mobile and desktop versions of VR goggles I’ve sampled felt awkward and bulky. Sometimes I get nauseous too. This invites an ominous comparison with 3D, which has had mixed results at best in theaters and been a total non-starter in living rooms.

Facebook/Oculus are not “product” guys. Even if their execution was flawles, the combination of Facebook and Oculus do not strike me as being hardware-oriented enough to deliver the kind of instant hit a company like Apple (which has yet to venture into VR, or at least publicly admit any plans to do so). It’s one thing to have the know-how to craft a groundbreaking device; it’s an entirely different skill set to deploy such a product with all the complexities in marketing, retail, etc. necessary to make it happen.

VR is going to take a while to iterate over many years, not months, and that may even include the kind of reboot moment Google Glass is experiencing now, where reality and expectation deviate so greatly that all seems lost.

As Google can now attest, the frothy ferment of ideas around even the most innovative-seeming device in its early stages should not be confused with the kind of rare momentum that translates to overnight acclaim.

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