He was seven years since Palmer Luckey appeared on the cover of WIRED magazine. The June 2014 issue stated: “This kid is about to change games, movies, TV, music, design, medicine, sex, sports, art, travel, social media. , education and reality. In 2016, Facebook acquired its virtual reality company, Oculus, for $ 2 billion. He now invests $ 18.5 billion a year in research and development, and Facebook Reality Labs, the company’s augmented reality / virtual reality division, represents up to 20 percent of its total workforce, with no sign of slowing down. But despite the many years, billions of dollars, and the year-long pandemic requiring home entertainment, the results so far have been pretty lackluster. Headsets are more fancy and games are more lucrative, but our minds remain collectively nonetheless not blown.
It’s not just Facebook and Oculus. In May 2016, WIRED’s cover story introduced readers to Magic Leap, “A Mysterious Startup, A Mountain of Money, and the Quest to Create a New Kind of Reality.” Magic Leap was developing a set of semi-transparent “mixed reality” glasses that could integrate virtual objects into the user’s physical environment. The company has raised more than $ 2 billion in funding from leading Silicon Valley investors. It looked like the biggest leap forward in hardware since the iPhone. But the the actual product never lived up to the breathtaking demo. The company laid off 1,000 employees in 2020, hired a new CEO and pivoted to focus on narrower enterprise applications. The future of mixed reality is always, well, the future.
Somehow, none of these less than ideal results affected confidence in VR. In fact, Facebook doubled down on Monday, announces a new group within the company dedicated to the development of its Horizons VR universe. Mark Zuckerberg recently told Facebook employees that over the next five years, he expects to go “from people who see us primarily as a social media company to a metaverse company”. Silicon Valley billionaires and venture capitalists, it seems, are unable to say no to fancy headphones with a big dream. And that goes back 35 years – Jaron Lanier was the Palmer Luckey of the ’80s and early’ 90s!
Technology is still about take a turn, about be more than just a gaming device, about revolutionize fields such as architecture, defense and medicine. The future of work, entertainment, travel and society is always on the verge of a huge virtual upgrade. Virtual reality is a bit like a rich white kid with famous parents: it keeps failing upwards, always graduated on a generous curve, always judged by its “potential” rather than its results.
A reason that Virtual reality has been offered such an endless chain of second chances (the proverbial lineage of virtual reality, if you will) that it has played a disproportionate role in the popular science fiction around which our collective image of the future is built. William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1984 book Neuromancer. The term later became synonymous with World Wide Web, but Gibson’s initial rendering was of a virtual realm that “console cowboys” could enter and exit. Gibson and his cyberpunk peers strongly shaped the tech culture of the 1980s, before the dotcom boom, before the tech brethren.
When Lanier unveiled his bulky head-mounted display and data glove in 1987, he invited tech enthusiasts to be the first inhabitants of the virtual future they had glimpsed in cyberpunk novels. 1992 by Neal Stephenson Snow accident and Ernest Cline 2011 Loan Player One later massive sci-fi hits whose stories set in a future where virtual reality is a staple.
When Zuckerberg said that he “has been thinking about some of these things for [he] was in college and just starting to code, ”it’s not hard to guess what books he was reading at the time. For Gen X and Millennial Tech Entrepreneurs who dominate Silicon Valley today, the science fiction stories of their youth have always treated virtual reality as an ambient part of the future technological landscape.
Just like the current billionaire space race is, at least in part, proof that inside every tech billionaire is an inner child who dreamed of piloting their own rocket, the VR arms race hinges on the premise that mass adoption is inevitable – the only question is when that future arrives, and what business will get incredibly rich when it does.