Let’s Rethink Virtual Reality

a humble opinion

Now that we’ve established what Synaesthetic / aloom is all about, let’s have some fun.

Even as a new-comer to the Augmented Reality / Mixed Reality / Virtual Reality space it’s not surprising that the VR industry is failing (for convenience, I’ll refer to these all as VR in this post). Regardless of how established such companies are, how advanced their tech is, or the amount of resources they have, it seems that for many, common sense is lacking. Common sense is in such a drought, that we prefer to call Synaesthetic a next-generation User Experience company because the VR label is just not practical these days.

Sound arrogant? Please read on.

Many of these “Lack-of-Reality” companies and products focus on niche markets and the whims of only a privileged few. This includes premium remote gaming experiences which first and foremost require expensive hardware products (VR headsets) that are simply not worth it to most people. Second, these amazing devices are too complicated to work well. Even before the COVID-19 led recession, analysts declared a “VR winter” based on the 2019 sales of the biggest products out at the time… and others like Magic Leap proving to be a massive flop where vaporware grew from over-ambitious developers.

And yes, COVID may open new opportunities for VR, but the concern is that no lesson will be learned and the same over-ambitious mindsets will prevail to repeat past mistakes. We’re only echoing criticisms of questionable trends of the startup world — but in this specific vertical of next-generation user experiences and VR, we will give some of our own opinions.

Aside from a few interesting outliers like audio-haptic VR, the vast majority of VR development has been in the visual realm — up to now, advancing graphical displays into tiny wearables where you can generate immersive displays, or layering extra information on top of one’s surroundings, has been the mission. As cool as this idea may be, the general response has been lukewarm — the technology is simply not ready yet, resulting in high prices, limited use-cases, and awkward products.

VR is still in its infancy, and it’s rushing towards grand goals without properly building up the social and technical foundations it needs to reach them. In that rush, it fails to recognize the even more critical role it plays in society, as a tool for filling in the cracks for the masses - much like music! I wasn’t alive in the post-war era of the 40s and 50s, but I can still hear and imagine the comfort and support radio and recordings offered to people who thought the world just came back from the brink of destruction.

So instead of promising people iPhones upfront, why don’t we figure out basic infrastructure and enabling technologies to make them possible in the first place?

And what should the purpose or potential of virtual reality be? Something tells me it’s much bigger than making your skin look smoother on Social. But at its core, something can be learned from such an application — virtual reality is meant to supplement reality, to fill the voids of everyday life, and conveniently offer something beyond what we have available to us in reality. The goal of such a virtual-reality industry is to be mainstream, to reach a critical mass big enough to leverage network effects (which should be a central appeal to VR, because who wants to be in a VR alone or with only a few people?). VR should fill the voids of everyday life; that means making something widely useful, comfortable, and accessible. And in these Post-COVID times, it means bringing back the richness of the in-person experiences we are missing.

So in a world of growing isolation and loneliness, polarization and argumentativeness, of effectively grumpiness… What does society need? To feel connected, for better communication.

Communication through just text lacks emotion and the larger context of the sea of words you’re drowning in. If your eyes glaze over at the walls of text… then perhaps you’ve reached a data-bloat and attention-deficit, and maybe you need to communicate in a different medium. Maybe what you really want is an emotional release, to recharge your feelings, to exchange empathy, and just feel good. As useful as video chats can be, it is still hard to focus on and feels a bit too removed to try to communicate through a small screen for extended periods of time.

For a more sustainable solution, it makes sense to turn to the most long-standing and intuitive communication medium humanity has ever had. Why not turn to the creator of empathy and social connection; the tool that has gotten people through wars, famine, slavery, and spiritual purgatory over the millennia, i.e. Music?

Music started off as a communal, interactive, multi-sensory ritual, and these aspects make it such a powerful experience that it tuned our genes to the point that babies can be born with musical intuition. Music was how we first connected, it is a communal pillar, a cultural bridge, the first form of emotional communication. It inspired our memories, transported us from the reality we were in into something higher, something fantastical and abstract… Music was the original Virtual Reality. Think about it, way before electricity or even writing, the sounds we made with just our bodies even as cavemen inspired our minds to add layers of meaning to our environment and lives. If that doesn’t sound like virtual reality, I don’t know what does.

Even once the modern music industry was born, from vinyl records to radio broadcasts, recording and replaying audio was the first way we simulated experience with technology on a large scale. In doing so, we birthed the entertainment industry of motion pictures and music, which allowed a cultural revolution of more rich and accessible art for everyone. Sure amazing art existed before the advances in technologies like audio hardware, information storage, and telecommunication made it widely available — but by bringing art to the masses in a practical way, we democratized it away from just a luxury experience for the elite, and leveraged its true value to our society as a tool for the masses.

But I’ll be the first to admit it — as much as I love music and listen to it constantly as a sort of fuel for life, I have trouble just listening to a full song with my full attention. I can’t easily focus on my hearing over my other sensory inputs, especially of vision. In fact, I am mostly thinking in my visual senses when I listen to music, as I’m probably typing an email, socializing or being present in my environment in some other capacity. I’ll admit I’m betraying the music in some way when I do that. I am letting this fire-hydrant sized stream of art to just blow past me, while I just take a sip now and again. But we can’t easily close our eyes and listen to a full song without getting distracted. That is just how we are naturally wired… we’ve evolved to look for things we hear, whether it’s a snake in the bush or a crying baby, these are instinctual habits. It’s involuntary; we are programmed to crave visual stimuli all the time… and the digital age of Social media certainly hasn’t reduced that craving. Even as my favorite songs play, my eyes wander and eventually catch on something and draw my attention there. And my eyes can’t stay closed instead, they are wired to be open and take in information and guide my consciousness. Thus, I find myself demoting music to a secondary activity, a background stimulus, a passive act… all of which compromises music’s central purpose, social connection.

SO, doesn’t it make sense that in our mission to pioneer VR, to weave a new fabric for reality, and forming new social tools to elevate our culture, especially in these unprecedented and isolated times… we should start at the beginning? We should use music and audio to propel us into the next generation of media and VR to combat the side-effects of “social distancing” — simultaneously tapping into music’s strong social influence, but also rectifying some of digital music’s short-comings in holding our attention.

“OK, OK, I get it”, you might say, “but how exactly could we do VR better with music?” Well, it isn’t by providing virtual music videos you can walk through or hyped-up gaming worlds, albeit those are great destinations with a clear demand.

First though, what we need to do instead of moonshot products like VR headsets, is simply start with the basics — how do our senses tie together to construct our reality? What is the sensory hierarchy of our consciousness, and how can tech aid in optimizing our perception of experiences? What user experiences have naturally unoptimized sensory stimuli in their environment? For music, is there a link between visual characteristics like color, and audible ones like harmony? Is there data visualization value to physically linking a soundscape to one’s immediate landscape? Does effectively simulating ghosts that embody music move you on a deeper level and provide a new level of immortality to the art and artist?!

What is the relationship between what we see and what we hear?

At Synaesthetic, we believe VR should start a bit closer to reality in its offerings, even if that isn’t the sexiest or easiest thing to do. But maybe a first-principles approach, where creativity, accessibility, social responsibility, technical pragmatism, and business viability are kept as priorities, can help us pioneer VR and next-gen UX technology into the mainstream.

Let me be clear and say this isn’t a dismissal of the industry, this isn’t even a scientific debate of the technology, I’m only challenging industry leaders to sharpen their pencils in how they view their role in society and as a result how they interact with it. There is no debate here that people would buy into an amazing virtual reality world, and there is no doubt that VR can offer value, but my point is we are nowhere near our Sci-fi fantasies yet.

If someone really wants to create The Matrix (or save us from it), one should maybe first study Baudrillard and understand that the age of simulation and simulacra is the funeral of originality and “innovation” (a hollowed-out term, but just leave it for now).

Instead of trying to hack everything into submission and sell it as “innovation!” before anyone sees the screws fall out — can we be a bit humbler and more respectful of the scientific method that got us this far?

I have three suggestions:

1. A first-principles approach should be applied to the overall user experience rather than assuming the starting point is a headset (which turns out today to be bulky, expensive, and limited). There are a lot simpler, prerequisite technologies and basic gaps in our understanding of perception that should be worked on first. And they should be worked on in a feasible, systematic fashion. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the building blocks for VR aren’t even fully built yet, not from a scientific approach that properly masters and develops neurocognitive features at least. We all want to stand on the shoulders of giants, but how many of us realize that giants are not hollow, that if we hope to be giants ourselves then we must also take a thorough and meticulous route. We must learn to do more with less, and zoom in on more fundamental tech rather than dazzlingly large systems like headsets. We need more scientific maturity in tech, especially in VR.

2. Even putting the science aside, headset wars do nothing to prime society and the culture to want such technologies as a whole. We need to think about what value can VR offer to the masses, what is our reality lacking that we want to supplement it with virtually? There is good reason to be skeptical and snake oil salesmen are emerging more and more in the tech startup realm. We should focus on leveraging proven hardware that people are familiar with, instead of pushing esoteric new products like headsets down people’s throats. We need to thoroughly prove the value of VR before it will become mainstream.

3. Specifically: Steve Jobs took a very technical industry and re-imagined its products into something digestible for average people. Tesla advanced electric cars so much while keeping in mind that accessibility for the mainstream is critical, with their $35k USD Model 3. Last but not least, Snapchat is probably the most relevant example of a successful VR technology with widely-accepted value; nothing too crazy, a practical, engaging and accessible social platform tool that leverages proven and ubiquitous hardware — smartphones. We need to recognize the diversity in our societies and actually act in ways that accommodate it, rather than just support it with words or superficiality. We need to make products that are widely accessible both conceptually and economically.

These suggestions may seem a bit demanding, and maybe are too much to ask of people looking to ride hype waves for short-term gains… but to the rest of us that are looking to build lasting value, I propose, in a world that’s stumbling over itself at light-speed — to walk before we run. Let’s come back full circle to some classic truths like listening more than we talk, valuing expertise, and being patient. And I repeat, let’s recognize diversity in our society not just through words but through actions… Can you think of a few?

Stay tuned as Synaesthetic / aloom leads a movement of more practical & scientific Virtual Reality.

CEO & Co-Founder @ aloom.io

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