A couple weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the inaugural SplitX: VR/AR Summit, where we explored the false narratives that have been souring the milk, so to speak, in the mixed reality industry for several years now and which have served to aggravate an already volatile market and extend its hype cycle by setting startups and companies up to fail.
Krasimir Nikilov, cofounder & CEO at Quark VR, harks it back to a Bill Gates quote on the human tendency to “overestimate the two year impact of technology, and underestimate the ten year impact,” which I definitely think seems to be a root factor at play. Regardless, the collateral damage is very real and I’d like to share some of the primary narratives that were scrutinized during the panel.
So what are the four false narratives that are damaging mixed reality?
East versus West
The first relates to a piece I published last month, where I encouraged startups and companies to embrace China’s mixed reality market. This is an especially tough sell when the majority of pundits, big industry players, and of course the media, continually portray the Asian giant as a foe rather than a friend. Indeed, the tired attempt is to frame the market as a fierce rival rather than a natural complement to the west.
“The media loves to emphasize the ongoing war between the two of them for the sole reason of recreating a good old East vs West story. Meanwhile, the west adopts the ‘they’re copying us!’ standpoint, while the East has no idea about the feud and acts as if the West does not exist at all.” Armando Matijevic, cofounder and a CEO of an American-Croatian VR startup, SpaceSys, and the organizer of the SplitX: VR/AR Summit.
The impact that this kind of widespread western misconception has is that it serves to blindsight startups and companies from perceiving the actual market landscape as it really is, so they invariably misstep in navigating the field for potential opportunities or, on the contrary, search for opportunities in all the wrong places.
Inflated market forecasts
One the most frenzied narratives of all has to be the overly optimistic and inflated forecasts published by the pundits and promoted by the media consistently throughout the past several years.
The upshot is that these outlandish adoption figures and revenue projections have predictably caused a proportional uproar in market disappointment, because they were always fairy tales. Even after the rude awakening of 2016, the whimsical forecasts continued to be broadcast, which leaves me to consider that the primary driver at work is to keep the hype kindled just enough to sell reports.
“The sad thing with the forecasts is that instead of looking at their mistakes and at least opening up the discussion around a more organic growth of VR technologies, for example via a stronger adoption for industry use cases and a later end user adaptation, I have the feeling they just keep pushing the magic hockey stick moment a couple of months into the future.” says Daniel Sproll, Cofounder and CXO at realities.io. “Which in turn might continue killing of a lot of early companies as they, instead of adapting and working with the market that is available now, the temptation is to try to hold out just a little longer and everything will be alright.”
VR and AR are one
Another fundamental misconception that the pundits and the media have trouble in reconciling is that VR and AR are not separate technologies and markets, but in fact represent two ends of the same immersive spectrum.
“In my opinion, this comes down to a messaging problem: If someone has never heard of virtual reality or augmented reality, it’s kind of hard to explain the concept.” says Dominic Eskofier, Head of Virtual Reality EMEAI at NVIDIA. “Combine that with the need to explain that AR and VR are essentially the same thing on different parts of the reality-virtuality continuum defined by Milgram et al. in 1994 – and you’ll quickly reach the end of the attention span of the average person.”
When the media conveys the two as distinct to one another, it may be for the benefit of simplifying the concepts so that mainstream audiences can understand. But when they take it further by following the lead of the pundits, who pit the two technologies against each other and frame it as a case of, for example, AR cannibalizing VR, it creates an artificial story that stirs unnecessary confusion and discord in the market dynamics.
Hence Clay Bavor, VP of VR and AR at Google, refers to the tech as immersive computing, why I call it mixed reality or “XR”, or as Sproll presented it at the SplitX summit, spatial computing.
“People pitting AR and VR (and MR for the matter) as opponents haven’t understood the medium. They are all on the same gradient with the differentiating factor being how much of the real world you see.” Sproll told me. “The only reason for the current division of AR and VR is our inability to build a device capable of of doing both. As soon as we can do that, the distinction will disappear and each app will have its unique mixture of elements from the real and the virtual world.”
High fidelity obsession
Lastly, as an advocate for the open web as the best mainstream platform for mixed reality, the false narrative that I have to continually contend with on this front is the industry’s engineered obsession with high fidelity content. A few years ago, the challenge was to convince people that the market would not be driven by triple A gaming, but even after that became self-evident in the spiritual crash of 2016, the insistence on friction-laden closed platforms (“walled gardens”) persisted.
As I wrote last month when featuring both the recent social VR experiment, Hubs by Mozilla, and the VR learning and training platform, Learnbrite, both solutions have been developed with maximum accessibility in mind, because “people shouldn’t have to be locked in to a specific platform or device”, wrote Sean White, the chief R&D officer at Mozilla, in a blog post back in April.
That two-thirds of the market continues to operate under the assumption that a game engine like Unity is best suited for mainstream appeal is contrary to the fact that hardware adoption is failing to live up to the initial market expectations that drove the lion’s share of the developer community to create in high fidelity in the first place.
As it stands now, walled gardens entail too steep a hill to expect mainstream users to climb while the open web meets the mainstream halfway by, as White characterizes it, letting the technology get out of the way so that the experiences can take center stage.
Yet false narratives aren’t all necessarily negative. They have their place, like in the movies or, more apt, in the case of the indispensable reality distortion field that a startup founder needs to adopt in order to believe they can turn their idea into a reality. But other than those two examples, they are generally the tactic of a used-car salesman and inevitably cause more harm than good when we fall under their spell. That’s certainly been the fate of the mixed reality industry.
Amir Bozorgzadeh is cofounder and CEO at Virtuleap, the host of the Global WebXR Hackathon and the startup powering up the Gaze-At-Ratio (GAR) XR metric.