Virtually a Reality

Recently, John Carmack, of id software fame, announced that he is working on a new virtual reality headset. Carmack is a fantastically intelligent and interesting guy, and it’s well know that when a journalist asks him a question about technology, he never gives a soundbite or a vague answer. Instead, he expounds at length, in technical but lucid detail, about the subject. For a geek, these kind of infodumps are pure gold, a real insight into the mind of a brilliant individual.

The linked article is no exception, and it has a series of videos in which Carmack discusses at length the deficiencies of existing virtual reality headsets, and how he hopes to address them by building better software and hardware. At present, he’s only got a prototype headset and some tepid industry interest about building a real product. If anything comes from it, it’s likely a couple of years off at least, but it’s very exciting, which is not a phrase I usually associate with VR.

If you think about VR at all, you probably consider it a relic of the nineties and remember the film The Lawnmower Man, giant clunky headsets and awful low polygon worlds. Carmack is pretty scathing about the current state of current VR devices, saying that they’ve barely progressed in the last decade. They still have low resolution, low field-of-view displays that refresh and respond too slowly to input. He’s got clear plans to improve all these aspects, eventually to wide field-of-view displays with 120Hz refresh rates.

The news, and some discussions I had regarding it with others on the web, got me thinking that the status of VR is much like the position tablet computers were in a few years back, and smartphones a little while before that. Right now, VR is a very unfashionable technology. It’s failure to catch on has lead at lot of people, me included, to dismiss it as a bad idea. But tablet computing was also dismissed by many as a bad idea, or at least one that had no mainstream potential. Various companies, Apple included, had attempted to make a tablet computer, but none had been successful. So why was the iPad a success, where others failed? Partly it had to do with Apple’s marketing, and the success of the iPhone laying the ground for portable, touch-based devices, but the iPad has sold more than the iPhone has, so it can’t just be that. I think it comes down a matter of inspiration vs implementation.

To paraphrase Edison, products are 1% inspiration and 99% implementation. A decent idea is a start, but the hard part is always implementing it properly, and even the best idea will fail with a poor implementation. Yet all too often, ideas are judged and dismissed on the basis of a history of poor implementation.

What is a tablet computer? I would define it as a handheld device that combines a display and all other components within a single tablet/slate shaped unit, and which accepts input through contact with the display instead of a physical keyboard or some other peripheral. By this definition, the Apple Newton, iPad, and all of Microsoft’s various attempts are all tablet computers, but they all had very different implementations, and only one of them was a success. The Newton may well have been the best implementation possible with the technology of the day, but was too limited to achieve mainstream success. Microsoft’s attempts were hamstrung by an insistence on trying to replicate desktop computing wholesale on a tablet device

By the time the iPad came along, the IT industry had mostly given up on building tablets, and the accepted wisdom was that they simply weren’t a mainstream proposition. With the iPad, Apple imrproved the display, the touchscreen, and all other aspects of the hardware and the software, enough to build a compelling product and reaped enormous success. It turned out there had been nothing wrong with the basic idea, but the implementation needed to be improved enough to make it a success.

Tablet computing is far from the only example of this phenomenon. Apple’s earlier success with the iPhone followed a similar story. Smartphones weren’t dismissed prior to Apple’s entry into the market, but they were considered a niche product, of interest only to businessmen and a subset of email obsessed teens. Web search engines are another example. The basic idea of a search engine is simple, you enter some keywords, and you get a list of resources back that are relevant to what you entered. In the nineties, search engines generally sucked. They were slow and returned very poor results. Then Google came along.

Google didn’t change anything about the basic search experience, in fact they stripped it back to its barest essentials. You input some keywords, you got some results back. However, their implementation was radically different behind the scenes. They used the page-rank algorithm to return more useful results, the built huge data-centres to index and store huge swathes of the web, allowing quicker and better responses, and they used sponsored advertising words to generate revenue. All this allowed them to become incredibly successful.

I think, and hope, that VR can do the same. The prospect of high-quality, wearable displays opens up the potential for incredibly immersive experiences. It might not be the next iPad, but I think there’s a lot of money to be made for whoever has the vision and commitment to really get behind VR. To build a new generation of devices that refuses to compromise on the experience, in the same way as Apple did with mobile computing. Perhaps Carmack will kick-start that process, it certainly sounds like he’s well on the way.