Saturday, January 28, 2023
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The mixed messaging of mixed reality

I vividly remember my first Vive experience. It was many CESes ago. I was managing a different site. Budgets were tight and I had the most on-the-ground experience, so I went solo. I had a different kind of fire back then, writing 100 stories over five days and walking every possible inch of the show floor — even the areas that devolve into row after row of knockoffs cribbed from the consumer electronics flavor of the day.

A day in, I met with HTC and slipped the headset on. The din of humanity melted away. I was underwater. It was quiet, serene — meditative, even. It was dark inside there. Rays and other fish swam by, silhouetted against a navy blue backdrop. Next came the largest animal to ever exist on this planet, purring and singing serenely. A blue whale’s eye is surprisingly small in proportion to the rest of its massive form. It’s roughly the size of a grapefruit or softball. It blinked a few times, attempting to determine what it was seeing.

When the demo ended, I was reluctant to take the thing off and reenter the throng. For me, this feeling is the height of virtual reality. Quietude. I paid the stupid premium to watch the new Avatar in 3D and all the other trappings. The fight scenes were fun, but I’d have been perfectly content if the whole thing had been hyper-intelligent space whales and moody adolescent Na’vi learning to swim.

It doesn’t have to be underwater, of course. I’ve played around with a few different planet simulators that made me feel similarly at peace for a few, fleeting moments. In the years since, I’ve become far more disciplined in my meditation practice, and I can say that these sorts of VR demos are the closet tech has come to offering a shortcut to the sensation of a good sit.

All of this, I’m sure, says far more about me than VR. People gravitate to different experiences. Chatting with HTC’s global head of Product, Shen Ye, at the show, I mentioned another VR demo for work. The company was using some kind of Olympics-style game package. One of the attendees asked if they had Office Simulator. Said he liked to use that as a baseline for testing headsets.

I’ve always been fascinated by this, the use of expensive, powerful technology to do the most mundane things imaginable. Ye suggested the appeal was the ability to mess things up. It’s a freedom to do something most of us wouldn’t do in our normal, non-virtual lives. Think Grand Theft Auto, only you’re intentionally knocking over a cup full of pencils. Far be it for me to judge how other folks get their kicks.

I made a point of trying the big headsets at this year’s show — specifically the Magic Leap 2, Meta Quest Pro, Vive XR Elite and PSVR2. It was a valuable exercise, in terms of comparing and contrasting technologies, and also offered some insight into the different approaches. When you put on the PSVR2, for example, it’s instantly clear why gaming has long been so central to the virtual reality pitch. Horizon Call of the Mountain is a terrific way to get to know the tech.

The demo starts as a bag is pulled off your head. You find yourself in the rear of a three-person canoe, as it’s explained to you that you’ve recently been sprung from jail to help with a mission. I’m generally not a fan of lengthy setups, but here it makes sense. You need to get your bearings and take some time to enjoy the scenery as a menagerie of robot animals live their lives among the foliage. One of the two characters in front of you paddles slowly, so as to avoid detection from more sinister creatures. Naturally, you’re detected and all hell breaks loose. There’s a quick blackout, you get submerged and then the gameplay really starts.

One downside to VR is all of those uncanny aspects of the virtual human form are on full display, as your entire field of view is occupied by the game. But the scenery is gorgeous. After climbing the side of a cliff, the Sony rep running the demo taps you on your shoulder and reminds you to take it all in. When you eventually take the headset off, you find yourself in a similar position as the whale demo, inside a packed convention center, only this time, passersby have been watching you flail around for 30 minutes.

Magic Leap represents the opposite end of the spectrum with its mixed reality offering. The company’s financial struggles have been well documented. That’s resulted in two key things: First, the company just sold a majority share to Saudi Arabia. Second, it pivoted. Short term, there appears to be a lot more money to be made in enterprise. A lot of corporations have deep pockets, and these headsets are just way, way too prohibitively expensive for 99% of consumers.

Pricing is going to be a big issue for the foreseeable future. If there’s a sweet spot between expensive enough to be good and cheap enough to be affordable, it’s thus far been elusive. Magic Leap hasn’t struggled because it’s an inferior product. The demos I got at CES were, frankly, incredible. In one, a 3D scan of the human brain emerges, pointing the way toward use in medical settings. In another, a mountain pops up. In the foreground, a wildfire advances. Tiny helicopters circle around in the air above.

While the mixed reality experience isn’t as intentionally isolating as VR, it’s still easy to get lost in. It clicks quickly. It really does feel like the future. The efficacy of the technology in the field is, perhaps, another question entirely. Remember how Microsoft’s massive military HoloLens contract bellyflopped, in part, due to the fact that light bleed on a soldier’s face could potentially be seen by the other side?

That’s a dramatic example, of course, but there’s a lot of work to be done across the board to make these kinds of systems truly valuable to business. Still, of the three MR headsets I tried, Magic Leap really was the standout. It’s also more than double the price of HTC and Meta’s systems.

Ye described the battle for pricing as a “race to the bottom” in our conversation. I certainly agree that the prevalence of bad AR/VR/MR systems is probably a net setback for the industry. Sure, things like Google Cardboard were very accessible, but is a bad VR experience better than no experience at all, when it comes to moving the industry forward?

“The giants that are really trying to disrupt are on this race to the bottom, making cheap headsets that they’re losing money,” Ye says. “At the end of the day, what’s the cost of your personal data? We’re not a social media company. Our business model doesn’t rely on advertising revenue, so it’s not something we’re doing. We want to build good hardware.”

The “personal data” bit here is, of course, a potshot at companies, like Meta, which are in the data monetizing game. Is using your personal information to subsidize access worth it? Depends on the person, I suppose. Plenty of people have given up more for less in the social media arena.

One thing all parties seem to agree on is that Apple’s inevitable entry in the space — if successful — will be a net positive. Rising tide, ships, etc. It would, certainly, be validation for a technology that’s felt like the next big thing for decades. The inevitable next question then, is: Will there be enough room for everyone?

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