Why now is the time to build for VR
The 90s were a fascinating period for tech. The World Wide Web popularized the Internet leading to Netscape, Amazon, Google, and other exciting experiments such as Geocities and Napster. With Windows 95 and Microsoft Office, PCs went from being in the homes of a few to reaching a mainstream market. We started buying home consoles that came with 3D graphics. People were willing to push the boundaries of tech that was far from ready: General Magic set the foundations for the modern smartphone and VPL worked on crazy embodiment projects where people became avatars of all shapes and sizes.
There was a lot of experimentation that brought together people from many backgrounds. While many projects didn't make it, people were excited about how technology was going to change the world and wanted to be a part of it. Even those who didn't make it were valuable: some were too early but paved the way for what was to come, others made mistakes that were necessary on the path to finding the correct solutions.
The sense of wonder, optimism and creativity in tech — best represented by the Hacker ethos — lasted until the early years of the smartphone and cloud era. Then the outsider's sentiment towards tech became negative and the insider became too professionalized. We started following Silicon Valley's playbook to improve incrementally, playing it safe and making all software look the same. We lost the magic.
The pendulum is starting to change direction. We now see organizations like The Browser Company or people like Packy McCormick popularizing the term magic again with a focus on how tech can make our human experience better. While we may not be at the Cambrian explosion moment for VR like we are with AI, it's the ideal platform for deeper human connection and new more natural interfaces. With VR, and other technologies like AI, we can bring back the fascination and magic from the 90s.
State of VR
Now there are 30m-40m1 VR devices in people's homes — like PCs in the late 80s2. Meta recently announced that "over $1.5 billion has been spent on games and apps" and that "the number of titles at the $20-million mark has doubled year over year"3. They also said that there are 150 titles in development. This proves that it's possible to build and market good VR software and there is so much going on already.
VR applications, games, and tooling have come far since 2016. For gamers, Half-Life Alyx — released in 2020 — is still the holy grail. There are also great sports simulations like Eleven Table Tennis, Gym Class, and Derby where you can hone your skill while competing with others and breaking a good sweat. Instead of hanging out in a random virtual world, why not take a stroll in the many courses in Walkabout Mini Golf? The Among Us VR port brings tension and collaboration to a new level. Gorilla Tag, by a single developer, is killing it with its fun locomotion based on the limitations of current headsets.
Professionals have their space with high-quality applications like Immersed or Workrooms to work in VR, alone or with others. Softspace is creating a new hand-based UI to connect and visualize your ideas in their tool for thought. Those working with 3D can collaborate in Arkio or Gravity Sketch. There are companies figuring out how VR will improve education like Mondly or Noun Town. Artists can create in new ways with Multibrush or Vermillion.
It's never been easier for creators to jump in. It's possible to create your own virtual worlds and games in VR with Rec Room or Horizon. You can also create virtual worlds on the Web with Hyperfy, Frame, Hubs, or Spatial. Third Room is another alternative based on a decentralized communication protocol — Matrix — and great performance. Both Unity and Unreal with third-party plugins make VR development much easier. We've seen similar progress on the Web with the advancements in Three.js and Babylon.js, and newcomers like Needle, Wonderland, and Croquet. It's now simple to make a multiuser virtual world where you provide the feeling of presence to your users.
The way forward is to foster a collaborative environment that welcomes people from all backgrounds. We can learn from each other's successes and mistakes. We may not have the perfect headsets for all use cases, but by focusing on current limitations and embracing them, we can still create magical and useful applications that set the foundations for future generations.4
The main limitation is the friction involved in putting on the headset. People are transported to another world and that requires a mental adjustment. Some people must also move around their furniture for a significant play space. On top of that, existing headsets have a slow path from putting on the headset to being in the game. The experiences we build need to be interesting enough for people to jump all these hurdles.
Once they are inside, they probably won't last more than an hour due to discomfort. And we can't build text-heavy applications as the clarity is not there yet. While comfort and clarity will improve greatly with gen 2 — and people will use VR for longer — we still need to keep them in mind when developing our virtual worlds.
VR applications can't compete with 2D apps like Blender, Powerpoint, Slack or VS Code on features. These apps have had many years to mature. Let's focus instead on what 2D can't do: presence and natural interfaces. VR applications can offer a collaborative environment where a true feeling of togetherness sparks a more meaningful experience. Interacting with 3D interfaces with our hands is more natural, but we're still bringing design elements from 2D. There's a lot of exploration left for new design paradigms based on hand controls and contextual menus.
These issues have led the community to focus on active games showcasing what VR can do that no other platform can. One of the most popular use cases is fitness, which was unexpected. Most verticals that win big will be unexpected. Hanging out with others in an immersive virtual space brings together the presence of the real world with the power to draw pixels. Imagine how this will shape how we communicate.
Consider the intersection of VR with AI and crypto. There are prototypes where a user can dream up a virtual world, and a generative model creates it.5 Imagine a magical interface where we can conjure 3D objects as we speak. AI makes it easier for all of us to become creators and not just consumers. In crypto-land, there's a lot of talk about digital nations. Virtual worlds are the land for these nations and blockchain is the native infrastructure for the virtual land.
Now is the time to build for VR. We have a much bigger market and the creator tooling has improved so much. We're at that sweet intersection where the environment is maturing but everything still needs to be figured out. We have a small but growing tight-knit community that loves VR and uses it every day. It wasn't the case with 3D TVs and it's a positive sign that there's something there capable of generating positive emotions in people. We're also getting close to generation 2 headsets that will further expand the market.
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Like I said in my last post: "There's so much left to explore. VR is a new way to play, connect with each other, interact with our digital lives, and create art. It's at the perfect intersection to once again bring together a wide range of people to build the future. One thing Michael Abrash did get right: 'These are the good old days'." It's an exciting time where it's easy to jump into VR development, meet like-minded passionate people, and create the foundations of the platform. Let's explore and experiment, like in the 90s, in search of the magic that will make VR mainstream.
Thanks to Monica Zeng for the help reviewing this post.
I'm interested in the Apple headset to see what new ideas and interaction paradigms they bring to the table.