What it is: The latest technology, such as virtual reality, may be impressive, but you still need to explain what problems it solves.
There’s an interesting article about virtual reality by Eric Weiss called “Thought Bubble: Virtual Reality Has a Public Relations Problem.” The basic idea highlights the problems with technology in general. Virtual reality proponents can demonstrate amazing technological achievements with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift that only costs $600. Watching any demonstration of a virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift shows not only that the technology works, but it can immerse the user in an entirely new world to create immerse interactive experiences.
The problem isn’t the technology. The problem is that the technology doesn’t solve a pressing need for most people.
The general argument among tech-savvy users is to show someone amazing technology and then wait for the general public to rush out and buy it. Tech-savvy users know the technology works and can don things no other product can do, so in their mind, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t be clamoring to use it as soon as possible.
The problem is that in the real world, people don’t want to use technology. They want to use products that solve immediate problems, and right now, most people can’t see a compelling reason to use virtual reality.
That doesn’t mean virtual reality doesn’t work and doesn’t have a future. It just means that virtual reality right now has little appeal for the general public.
Think back to the fax machine, which was invented in 1850. It took more than a century before people finally started using fax machines. The technology worked back in 1850. It’s just that people had little use for sending paper documents electronically over the telephone lines when ordinary mail worked just fine even though it was much slower.
Tossing a letter in the mail might be slow, but it guaranteed 100% accuracy in legibility. Faxing a document through the primitive phone lines of 1850 meant faxes where hard to read even though they were fast. In this case, fast meant nothing if you couldn’t read it easily.
That’s the problem with tech-savvy users. They first solve technological problems and then try to find a way to convince others to use it whether it can solve immediate problems of the average person or not. In the early days of PCs, most people didn’t need one, at least not for a price of $3,000, which most of them cost back then. Only when PCs came down in price and become necessary did more people finally tart buying and using them. The same holds true with virtual reality.
Look at most virtual reality demonstrations and they show you immersive games and niche solutions like training astronauts to walk on Mars or showing architects creating a building to view. Nowhere in these virtual demonstrations do you see an average person solving a pressing problem that’s worth paying $600 or more for.
People buy mobile phones these days because they can see the immediate benefit of making and receiving calls wherever they are. People won’t buy virtual reality headsets because they can’t see the immediate benefit of strapping a device to your face and looking at a virtual world.
Virtual reality is critical for many industries, but not for the general public just yet. While tech-savvy users think working technology alone should be enough to demonstrate a product, the average person isn’t convinced. Flying cars are technologically feasible, but we don’t have them because they’re too expensive and not practical. The technology works; it’s just that the immediate need isn’t there.
That’s the current problem with virtual reality and the problem with technology in general. Just because something works doesn’t mean it will be worth using. AT&T invented video phones back in the 1960s but video calling hasn’t been common until recently. The technology worked, but it was too expensive with little immediate benefit. Seeing someone while you talked was nice, but never crucial. If technology can’t solve crucial, everyday problems, it won’t be adopted no matter how marvelous it may work or how many engineering challenges the designers had to overcome to make it work.
Technology doesn’t exist for its own sake but to solve problems. A mobile phone makes it easy to stay in touch with people wherever you are, so that’s why so many people have mobile phones. Virtual reality makes it easy to immerse yourself in another world, but most people don’t need that right now. That’s why virtual reality is great, but not mainstream just yet.
Will you want to walk around with a virtual reality headset strapped to your face? You can’t do that in public without walking into a wall or tripping over a chair. You can only do that in a private area such as your home or office, and even then once you strap a virtual reality headset to your face, you’re cutting yourself off from everyone else in the room.
There’s a definite use for virtual reality, but until it solves an important need for the general public, it may never be adopted just like the fax machine was never adopted until over a century later.
Corning developed Gorilla Glass in 1960. However, there was little need for tough glass for the general public until Apple needed a tough touch screen glass surface for the iPhone in 2007.
People don’t need new technology. People want solutions. When technology can solve pressing needs, it will be quickly adopted. When technology exists for its own sake, it will languish in obscurity until it finally solves a pressing need, if ever. Until that day occurs, you can expect much technology to languish in the laboratories.
Don’t embrace technology for its own sake. Embrace technology because it solves a problem that’s either too expensive or too difficult to solve with existing technology. When new technology can solve a pressing need cheaper and easier than existing technology, that’s when the public will embrace that new technology.
So what problems does virtual reality solve for the general public? Until that answer comes, expect virtual reality to languish while augmented reality takes over instead.