This week, at Facebook's annual F8 conference for developers, Mark Zuckerberg took a brief detour from trying to connect the world to reveal something that should help you tune it out. I'm referring, of course, to the Oculus Go, a standalone headset that represents Facebook's best shot at taking virtual reality mainstream.
Unfortunately, the Oculus Go will probably fail in that lofty mission. VR is simply too niche to appeal to a wide audience.
That's not to say that there is nothing to like about the product. On the surface, the Go seems like it has hit all the right buttons. It has an affordable price tag at $199, a far cry from higher-end VR sets like Oculus' own Rift, which not only costs hundreds more, but also requires a computer to run; the Go is, by contrast, a standalone product. It's also relatively light and simple to use, making it at least a reasonable stab at making a commercially appealing product.
But whether or not a product is a good VR device and whether it will be widely appealing are two separate questions.
Virtual reality comes with a series of limitations. Traditionally, we've thought of most of those as technical: that truly powerful enough computer hardware can't yet fit into a headset, and that both screen quality and the sensor tracking needed to make VR seem genuinely immersive aren't feasible for consumer applications yet. As it turns out, just to believably simulate the experience of walking through a room requires advanced tech that's just out of reach.
But if those are the technical limitations, like the smartphone before it, VR represents a whole new platform and approach to technology, and thus carries a host of deeply philosophical questions — primarily: What do we actually want from technology? And there, the limitations of virtual reality are far more pragmatic and social than they are technical.
The biggest knock against VR is that its ultimate goal is complete immersion, sucking you into whatever entertainment experience you happen to be experiencing. First, there are obvious practical troubles like being unaware of what is going on around you without the normal benefit of peripheral vision or hearing.
More importantly, however, is that a lot of the proposed software for VR is actually pointless. While immersion has always been the aim of video games — and thus offers VR's most compelling use case — most of the other things we want to do with tech aren't actually improved by putting a headset on. The idea of watching Netflix in a virtual room with friends are in a plain sense significantly worse than watching Netflix on a couch on a TV, and repeat failed experiments like Playstation Home. Yes, in theory, having a Skype chat with someone in VR may seem as if it would be more immediate, but it's likely just more cumbersome and difficult than doing it on a phone. Even VR games would require significantly more effort than playing Angry Birds on your phone, again constraining the usefulness of technology.
The point is that VR is at best a niche platform because unlike other forms of tech, it asks you to rebuild your behavior around it. Rather than being some next mainstream wave, its actual uses will likely be in more technical situations, such as skills training, education, or in situations like museums. What it will almost certainly not be is akin to the smartphone: a ubiquitous piece of technology that promises to become used by most of the world's population soon.
Facebook's hope that the Oculus Go will help push VR into the mainstream is based on a flawed premise: that what people want from technology is to be immersed in another world rather than have the world they live in augmented. That is why the smartphone has become the world's most important computing platform. Despite claims about people missing the real world for looking at their phones, what most people actually do on a phone — message, check social media, and read the news — are about connecting with the world, not removing themselves from it.
All the same, technology can be unpredictable in its uses; no one working on the Global Positioning System in the 1970s imagined that a few decades later people would use it to find a coffee shop or track a weekly bike ride. VR may itself be a marginal technology, but it's possible aspects of it may be used in broader applications — most notably augmented reality, which unlike its virtual counterpart overlaps digital and physical to add to an experience, rather than remove someone from it entirely.
Facebook's stated goal is that it wishes to connect people as a community. It might be more accurate, however, to say that the company functions on the principle of user engagement, where attention, rather than connection, is the goal. Understood that way, Facebook's many functions — from messaging to virtual reality — become clear in their purpose: to further how much time users spend on their products. But it also belies the contradiction at the heart of why virtual reality will never be the next smartphone. It literally blocks out other people, and in ways both literal and figurative, leaves you disconnected.