Virtual Reality Is Missing Its Moment… Again

VR missed several opportunities, but this is the biggest yet

Photo: Vasilina Popova/Getty Images

The first time I put on my headset and walked around in VRChat, the avatar-filled virtual reality multiworld, I accidentally interrupted a small gathering of friends. They were meeting in a small cabin on one of the hundreds of worlds hosted on the platform. As far as I could tell, this particular world only had one cabin surrounded by a flat, low-resolution landscape and bordered by water. As I explored the virtual space, I could hear the voices of the attendees in the cabin stop their conversation and look out the window at me. I was fairly noticeable since I was Diddy Kong and was nearly the size of their little building; I could hear them talking about me through the walls. I was tempted to enter the little cabin and talk to the group, but instead, I tapped at my enormous virtual wristwatch and teleported to another world.

The first person world of VRChat.

The first-person point of view in VRChat enables an immersive experience and connection to other users. At times, it even feels natural to communicate with other people in the digital environment. When I first used VRChat in 2018, it seemed to me that it was destined to be the next real iteration of communication experiences and something to leverage in an age of immobility. So what happened?

I have spent the last several years researching the history of virtual reality and ultimately wrote my dissertation on the VR of the late ’80s and early ’90s. When I used VRChat on my office’s Oculus Rift, I felt that the historical desires of VR had been realized: VR is all about the experience. In fact, Howard Rheingold wrote that phrase in his 1991 book, Virtual Reality. Rheingold’s text, the first real story of the commercial virtual reality industry, is an expansive overview of the moment VR took a big leap forward as well as the people that had created the new technology and their goals. In the early 1990s, the goal of VR was to reimagine the ways humans can find experience behind the screen, and the designers of the time had a unique historical opportunity to do so. They were, of course, limited by the technology.

The late-’80s leap forward happened because the culture practically demanded it, despite the limitations of technology. The upgrade to three-dimensional computer graphics, the increased prevalence of personal computers, and a latent psychedelic culture looking to experiment all aligned in the late 1980s. Eric Gullichsen had created a functioning virtual office space at Autodesk Cyberspace, Meredith Bricken considered how our “perceptual apparatus” could experience activity in non-human avatars, and Jaron Lanier’s VPL had developed a co-player virtual environment.

Top left: Eric Gullichsen in the Cyberspace headset with the DataGlove. Top right: Meredith Bricken at Autodesk Cyberspace. Bottom: VPL’s two-player VR environment. Photos: AP Photo/Jeff Reinking

As a result, VR’s hype and marketing promotion was meteoric. At SIGGRAPH in 1990, the line to demo the Autodesk and VPL products wrapped around the conference. By October of that year, the 24-hour Cyberthon event hosted over one-hundred attendees to experiment with the technology. Unfortunately, the technology was both cumbersome and wildly expensive (Autodesk’s unit was nearly $20,000 and VPL’s cost hundreds of thousands of dollars). In the early ’90s, VR was a distinct fad with products being created for gaming systems and arcades, software for virtual worlds, and the evolution of a three-dimensional code language for the nascent web.

And then it was gone.

As the story goes, in 2012, Palmer Luckey launched his Kickstarter to re-create a modern head-mounted display (HMD) that would be both affordable, and technically capable of creating virtual worlds in real time. Facebook bought Oculus Rift two years later for $3 billion as Zuckerberg saw the opportunity to increase the social networking platform into the desired virtual space — connecting with each other and almost being there. Facebook even created an experience similar to the early VPL co-player game called Facebook Spaces.

When I first used Facebook Spaces, I was impressed and reasonably creeped out. It was well put together and worked as advertised, but I couldn’t help thinking about the private information they were acquiring through embodiment data (now they’ll know my height, how I move, and where I look). As a new media educator, I naturally thought about how I could use this type of technology for classroom use. Later, when I found VRChat, I wanted to build a classroom world and encourage students to learn in the immersive space for distance learning or the possibility of contingency plans where we couldn’t get to campus.

So where is VR?

We are now in a collective global moment of “sheltering in place” due to the coronavirus pandemic. The majority of the technology and educational industries have moved to a work-from-home lifestyle turning to Zoom, WebEx, Skype, and social media to connect in the virtual space. And to the rescue: Animal Crossing.

Though not purposely coordinated, the Animal Crossing: New Horizons March 20th release date co-aligned with the orders for people to stay at home. The wholesome game encourages users to design an island paradise to share with friends. A redditor described the previous version as “a place to go when the real world sucks.” The game really has no distinct point, but in an era of social distancing, it keeps everyone close.

So where is VR? With quite possibly the biggest opportunity to enlist new users, new environments, and especially new experiences, why hasn’t the VR industry made a huge leap forward? After watching the Westworld Season 3 episode The Winter Line,” I was reminded that the current moment is probably VR’s third missed opportunity in recent years to leap forward.

I’ve been using Ernest Cline’s 2011 Ready Player One in my New Media courses since it came out. It’s a great book to use in class because as the 2010s progressed, the conversation included the problematic notions of nostalgia, object fetishism, boyhood narcissism, and obvious issues with women in gaming. When Spielberg set forth to make the film adaptation, I was genuinely excited, despite my criticism of the book. Then, when it came out, it was a movie about VR, not within VR. Personally, I thought the movie was shallow and reliant on nostalgia to act as eye candy, but what disappointed me even more was the lack of VR interactivity. Why couldn’t we experience this film in VR?

The majority of Ready Player One is computer generated as our protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends his social isolation in VR (since he lives in a 2045 hellscape due to climate catastrophe and economic collapse) and there is no real place for real-world activity. In the VR world of “OASIS,” we’re treated to an equally graphical adventure, albeit in 2D. We have to follow the direction of the camera and storytelling of the director. I was actually distracted constantly thinking about what I couldn’t see and why I couldn’t turn my head. Why couldn’t the VR portion of the film be watched with headsets as we watch 3D films with glasses?

Please, I just want to look around.

When the movie came out, the cost of a Samsung Gear VR was $99 and the Google Cardboard was $10. (Now about $16 and $1.67 respectively.) Why couldn’t some theaters demo this new way of experiencing a film? Why didn’t Spielberg direct the project in a game engine rather than a traditional CG filmmaking process? All these questions made me wonder why VR hadn’t jumped to the occasion.

Douglas Rushkoff, who was literally there during the 1990s iteration of virtual reality technology, wrote recently that “most VR is total bullshit” because as a technology, it is not as innovative as it could be. The technology simply repackages old entertainment concepts and focuses on profit over experience. And perhaps that’s the problem with experimenting in this scenario. As a one-off it may have been too much of a costly risk and the cost of producing a VR film would have been enormous (likely four times more so). But, it could have shown that VR is prepared to be a new vehicle for interactive experiences.

The second time I felt let down by the lack of VR was after watching the latter part of the second season of Westworld. Near the end of season 2, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) uses his “pearl” (his entire consciousness packed into a small hypercomputer) to access The Cradle, the ultra simulation of all the parks and characters stored in a facility known as The Forge. As an audience, we become aware of Bernard’s crossover by the aspect ratio on the television. Last week, we were treated to Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) entry into the computer simulation. The directors used the same visual trick.

Photos courtesy of HBO.

As soon as I saw the scene unfold, I thought about A.R. Stone’s 1991 essay “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up,” originally published for Michael Benedikt’s Cyberspace: First Steps. The cyberfeminist essay reconsiders what it means to be in Cyberspace, a place of assigned names and places and descriptions, invented solely for the experience, a place usually written by men. In the case of Westworld’s Cradle, this is true: Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) wrote the plots of Westworld and the world within the computer himself.

There are plenty more moments in entertainment and media that could have afforded a tentpole for the new VR show, but it didn’t happen.

In nearly every sense of the show, Bernard fully enters “cyberspace” and moves his being into the digital matrix. Stone noted “to enter cyberspace is to physically put on cyberspace;” to become the cyborg. Yet here we were, watching the avatar of Bernard move through the familiar code space that looked identical to the physical environment, just non-consequential. But once inside, are we not first-person Bernard? We were in his version of the simulation. Why could we not be there with him? Shouldn’t we see this experience through his eyes?

In November of 2015, the New York Times sent out 1.3 million Google Cardboards to their subscribers, giving them an opportunity to participate in the “new” VR trend. The article about VR included the links to several VR films. All subscribers had to do was put their phone inside the Cardboard headset and download the Times video app to access the content. Season 2 of Westworld was in 2018 and HBO could have pulled off a similar stunt — they didn’t.

I would have loved to have seen The Cradle as first person. There was fanfare in 2015 about the New York Times making VR mainstream, and now, a missed opportunity. At least I assumed the adventure inside Dr. Ford’s mathematical wonderland was a one-off stunt. For season 3, Maeve also found herself in the simulation and we know this because the aspect ratio told us so.

Finally, we’re here at another moment of missed opportunity. I’ve spoken frequently on the subtle nature of VR as an immobile device and that I believe that when we are struck immobile (my assumption was after a climate catastrophe) virtual reality would be the device to carry us into cyberspace, connect us with others, and provide us with the distraction necessary to fight the anxiety of the present. Instead, we have our social media, we have our Zoom meetings, we have Animal Crossing.

My dissertation and subsequent book project argues that virtual reality is only part of the journey. If we look at the evolution of the product in the 1990s, we’ll see that headsets aren’t the end point. Gullichsen went on to run a company with Pat Gelband called Sense8 that provided immersive software to a variety of companies. Mark Pesce and Tony Parisi wrote VRML for web browsers. The headset was too cumbersome and expensive, but the immersive environment was always what was to be desired.

The three missed opportunities tell us that the hype has always been just that, an intangible marketing attempt for the moment. There’s plenty more moments in entertainment and media that could have afforded a tentpole for the new VR show, but it didn’t happen. There is no big leap forward.

I guess I’ll spend my Animal Crossing “bells” on building my immersive classroom space on my island. It seems like everyone is already there anyway.

Digital Culture Expert. Cultural and Media Studies PhD. Co-author of the first peer-reviewed article on Pepe the frog. Teaches Media Studies at Queens College

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store