Virtual reality (VR) is one of the most fascinating technologies of our time. Despite the recent waves of Big Tech layoffs, billions of dollars have been sunk into VR hardware and software over the past few years. For this investment to be worthwhile, the VR industry needs to achieve sustainability and growth. To do this, it will have to explore many different applications of VR technology, including manufacturing and social VR. Social VR is a type of virtual reality experience where users can meet and interact with one another in a virtual world.
The potential of VR is immense. As Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, which was published in 1992, showed us, VR can be used to create a fully formed digital universe. However, the current state of VR technologies falls short of the metaverse depicted in books and movies. Until the VR industry figures out how to move beyond the current walled garden phase, the metaverse may never live up to the hype.
A walled garden is a mediated environment that restricts users to specific content within a website or social media platform. This is how the early internet worked — providers like AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy kept users on affiliated sites. This later changed when the true potential of the internet was realized, and users began freely traversing sites and platforms. Users connected and drew on information from many different sources.
Today, information, memes, images, celebrity gossip, and cultural moments all diffuse across the internet and are accessible from many different hardware devices, including cellphones, tablets, and computers. However, today’s VR more closely resembles a walled garden environment than the interconnected internet. There are only a handful of social software programs that are accessible from different headsets.
Software developers may find it difficult to program for multiple headsets at once, in part due to a lack of a standard software development kit across VR hardware devices. This leaves the current virtual reality market, despite the potential for immersive, interactive, social experiences, more similar to the gaming console market than a communication channel.
For VR to become the next widely adopted communication channel, the industry needs to move beyond the walled garden phase. To do this, VR needs to increase its interoperability — the ability for programs and applications to be able to integrate and for software to run across VR hardware. Interoperability raises important questions about the data infrastructure of VR hardware and software, the sharing of consumer and corporate data, and our ability to traverse different parts of the metaverse.
Virtual reality adoption is often talked about as if it’s just about to take off. In 1992, VR visionary Jaron Lanier predicted the possibility of home VR by the turn of the century. Researchers Tony Liao and Andrew Iliadis found something similar in their research on the augmented reality industry. Augmented reality was consistently talked about as if widespread adoption was just another five to 10 years out.
Yet, as author and researcher Dave Karpf succinctly lays out in WIRED, while both augmented and virtual reality technologies keep advancing, they have yet to reach the tipping point necessary for widespread social adoption. The technology, Karpf argues, is always “about to turn a corner, about to be more than just a gaming device, about to revolutionize other fields.” Yet, the primary use case of virtual reality remains as a gaming device.
Leaning into VR one potential avenue for VR to move beyond the walled garden phase and increase its interoperability is through the development of open source VR hardware and software. Open source technology allows for collaboration and innovation across different developers and users, with the shared goal of improving the technology and making it accessible to all.
Already, there are some efforts in this direction, such as the OpenXR standard that aims to provide a common framework for VR and augmented reality (AR) applications across different platforms. The success of these efforts will depend on the participation and collaboration of both hardware and software developers, as well as the support of the broader VR community.
Another important consideration for the future of VR is the issue of data privacy and security. As more people engage in social VR experiences and generate data through their interactions, there is a growing need for transparent and responsible data practices.
This includes issues such as consent and control over personal data, data retention and storage, and protection against data breaches and cyber attacks. To ensure the ethical and responsible use of VR technology, the industry must take steps to address these issues and develop standards and guidelines for data privacy and security.
At VR Centre, we agree that despite these challenges, the potential benefits of VR technology are vast and varied. From enhancing social and communication experiences to revolutionizing industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, and education, the possibilities are endless.