Cautionary tales from the past for virtual reality

I loved and sold graphic tablets for many years.  Essentially a high tech slab of plastic, it offers “the natural way” to interact with technology.  I always started my presentations by saying that “nobody was born with a computer mouse in their hand” and audiences nodded.  Half of them suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome or thought they did.  Everyone was impressed how quickly, effortlessly and accurately I worked my demo projects with a Wacom tablet.  Not just Photoshop, even Excel is better with a tablet, here look!  I whizzed through it all with genuine enthusiasm, that tablet was an extension of my mind for a while.

It isn’t now.  Fewer and fewer people complained about pain.  They had switched to laptops. The mouse was dead anyway.  The interfaces changed.  iPads and smartphones had dumbed down the requirements for accurate interaction while software had got better at predicting what you want to do.  Very few people need a graphic tablet anymore.  I checked out an app on my phone yesterday that does most of the cool tricks I performed in front of trade show crowds on their photos almost as well.

3D television was meant to be a revolution too.  HD, 2K, 4K ever rising pixel count.  And 3D thrown in too, heck you’re paying several thousand for the monster, why not?  Curved TVs and all sorts of other technologies always promise “it will be just like being there!”  Except we don’t seem to care.  Old fashioned television is more than enough resolution for millions of kids watching YouTube videos on their cellphones all day.  The bandwidth and storage requirements of high resolution never seem to be justified in the grand scheme of things.  This latest slew of virtual reality devices is still way too demanding.  Remember digital, interactive television?  Hundreds of promises, dozens of variations, many people in the industry betting and losing.  Clunky proposed interfaces and standards, almost all of them failed.   Partly because people don’t want interaction when watching TV, they want to vegetate.  And partly because more simple devices took care of the interaction.   Surfing the net on your tablet instead of channel surfing on your TV.

So next time you start to tell us about the next big thing in virtual reality, take a minute to think about the decades of marketing hoohah we have suffered with the above examples please.  When you tell us about the killer app and do that highly rehearsed demo, think about all the thousands of other technologies it will take, industries to shift paradigms and content that will need to be updated.  I’m not saying virtual reality will never happen.  Just that it is further than you think and that the opportunities might not be where you think they are.

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