I’ve been going to CES with my dad for the last 10 years, seeing almost every gadget, gizmo and widget before they came mainstream. Wearables, VR and AR really only started to garner traction and attention a few years back and while it’s come a long way since, it still has a long way to go.
The photos below are from CES 2014, where I tried on all the new crazy headgear, including the dev version of the Oculus, 5 months before Facebook acquired them. Needless to say, I looked ridiculous and the technology was early.
At the time I really didn’t think much of it and the potential that would come from it until I tried it again last year. During the whole startup/VC craze, I met with countless startups, tried on the new gear and was amazed at how far it’s come in just a few years. There are still many limitations that will make it difficult right now to see the mass consumer adoption needed to make it an everyday device but we’re certainly on our way.
Purchase and set up — this was really frustrating
My dad recently purchased the HTC Vive Pro a few months back, something I admittedly wasn’t too enthusiastic about and thus started my journey down the VR rabbit hole.
When you purchase the HTC Vive Pro (~$1000), the initial kit comes with the headset, one controller and one sensor. We had no idea, that you’re required to have two controllers AND two sensors in order to use it — something that wasn’t made explicitly clear when buying it. Also in tandem when he told me that he was purchasing it, I was tasked with getting the high-end gaming computer required to run it. Growing up, I was a gamer (Everquest, Command&Conquer etc) and built my own computers, so this part was actually fun and nostalgic going to Best Buy and checking out the latest gear. I ended up getting the Alienware ($1200) desktop (yes the big old towers), which is cheaper than laptops and more easily updated for future requirements.
I lugged the big, heavy tower back to my house, unboxed the HTC Vive Pro, plugged everything in and was sorely disappointed to know that it’s a paperweight unless you have everything. We ordered the second controller and sensor, waited another week and had everything we needed.
Finally, everything was plugged in, wires everywhere (you need lots of outlets), jerry-rigged the sensors to the top of my TV in front of me and one behind stacked on pillows. Yep, didn’t know we also needed to buy tripods for them, or as they also recommend, mounting them into your wall/ceiling too.
Plugged in and ready to go… Oh crap, I need to download and update everything. This is all on the PC, not in VR yet.
- Steam — knew about it, read about it but never actually used it. This is the premier marketplace for everything content related
- Viveport — This is the HTC Vive version of Steam with all of their branded content
- Geforce — Update drivers and download content as well
Ok ready to go, lets put on the headset
Like most new devices, you’re really excited, want to jump right in and not really sure exactly what to do yet. Especially in VR, which is an entirely new medium of interaction, I was pretty lost at first.
Content and initial experience
Like anything new, you have to get used to it, download a bunch of stuff, install it and see if it’s any good. Especially having your hands in VR, which is weird but very cool.
Most of the free content is OK and nice to try but not mostly gimmicky to get used to it or play a few times. The two apps that we’ve used the most are:
- Google Earth — Basically you’re superman and can fly anywhere in the world. Takes some time to get used to, so you don’t get dizzy or nauseous but once you strap in, the world is yours. I can walk the streets of NYC, check out the beaches of Santa Monica and then cruise through the Grand Canyon. Below is my brother-in-law showing my nephew VR and I think he likes it… This will be a big part of his life as he grows up, just like I got my first phone, the Nokia brick, then the Razr flip phone, before getting the first iPhone that changed everything.
- Rec room — This came with the platform and is kind of like the Wii. It has basic graphics, is social so you can interact with other players and lots of mini-games. My personal favorite so far has been the Lazer Tag game; it’s simple, easy to learn, I’m literally dodging in every possible way and can play for hours.
- Besides these two, we’re still experimenting with new downloaded content, games, and experiences. We tried NextVR for live sports but the content was limited, the graphics were like a bad TV and you couldn’t move. Some underwater shark swims were cool but boring after a while.
VR and AR will be the future but we need to be patient
After playing for hours, I am a believer now that these will be the systems of the future that everyone will use personally or professionally. We’re definitely getting close but there are still a few issues to deal with:
- Cost prohibitive — Right now this is not consumer price ready. The Oculus Rift and other headsets are hundreds of dollars, which isn’t super expensive but for how much you expect to use it, it’s not for most people. Definitely more “gimmicky” right now but fun if you’re interested
- Content — As I said before, this is a new medium with a lot of potential but it’s hard to incentivize studios and developers as there isn’t much money in it yet. And so far most of the better content is pay to play, which is probably worth it but we’re so used to free content. You can pay for Viveport, which allows you to download five new things a month.
- Space requirements — Not the biggest issue but you need a full room to set up the HTC Vive in so that you can fully move around and interact. It’s definitely worth it as I set up a 6x2ft perimeter so that when I move close to it a grid shows up in VR that warns me I’m getting close.
B2B is where the money is right now
I’ve met with so many startups and the consumer side always sounds fun and sexy but selling to businesses is usually easier (still hard) and more lucrative. Many VR companies have begun to focus on health care, military, and even employee training — there are lots of use cases behind the scenes that can really benefit from this.
Magic Leap finally launched ($2,300) a few months ago after years of development, hype and $2B+ in funding from the best in the world. I think it’s safe to say that most people were underwhelmed by it, even though the technology is truly impressive, it didn’t meet the lofty expectations after so much hype. I would recommend going through this great breakdown to see what they actually built.
So will this be the next iPhone like device that over the years will change our lives? I have no doubt that the initial production run will sell out but it will be years before the next few versions are truly consumer ready.
To put our money where our mouth is, we invested in Visual Vocal last year. Their platform allows you to quickly stage, mark-up and annotate a wide array of content from spherical capture devices. Basically, they want to be the PDF of VR and are starting by working with the largest construction and architecture firms in the world. They can now walk through blueprints with anyone around the world is a completely interactive VR environment.
I honestly thought it was a joke when they first sent me the foldable eyeglass device, which allows you to turn your phone into a VR device (not their tech, they’re the software). After trying it out, doing some research and realizing this is the easiest way to experience VR, they built an amazing platform and it actually works, I became a real believer.
Another fun example of the potential of VR is a truly innovative platform I was lucky enough to try out is Novo Reality. A very ambitious serial entrepreneur wanted to take it a step farther by purchasing a mechanical factory arm for building cars with 6 degrees of movement, attach a rig to it and created his own content to move you through. Think of it like an amusement park ride of the future.
We’re definitely on our way to building a technology platform that will fundamentally be apart of our lives. Overnight successes usually take years to happen and these days, we like to say that iteration is the new innovation. We’re currently in v1.0 of the consumer-ready technology VR/AR that will only get better as the technology becomes miniaturized, 5G allows us to transfer significantly more data with less power and there is a lot more content for everyone to enjoy.
So what has been your experience with VR/AR and what do you think will be the breakout success that gets people onboard?