VRguy podcast Episode 8: Adi Robertson, The Verge, on Low, Medium and High-end VR

My guest is Adi Robertson, Senior Reporter at The Verge. This episode was recorded on Mar 30, 2016.

Adi and I talk about the next hurdle to conquer in VR experiences, about low-, medium- and high-end VR, about the impact of Google Glass on the development of augmented reality solutions and much more.


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Interview transcript

Yuval Boger (VRguy):     Hello Adi, and welcome to the program.

Adi Robertson: Hi.

VRguy:  Who are you and what do you do?

Adi:        My name is Adi. I’m a senior reporter at The Verge and I cover virtual reality.

VRguy:  How long have you been covering virtual reality?

Adi:        Since probably about 2013. I think I tried the Oculus Rift for the first time in January at CES of 2013.

VRguy:  Okay, wow. That’s good. In terms of virtual reality technology, what we’re seeing is that one problem is getting knocked down after the other. Initially the displays were not good enough and now they are, and then tracking was not good enough and people were getting sick, and now it’s good. We’re starting to see hand controllers like the HTC VIVE. What do you think is the next big hurdle to conquer in terms of peripherals for a VR experience?

Adi:        It’s really difficult to say because we haven’t had motion controllers really come out with full games yet, and I think that’s the big step that we’re on right now. I think a lot after that is going to be stuff like augmented reality, that a lot of people think that augmented reality elements are going to come into VR, but we haven’t really figured out a way to merge those yet.

VRguy:  Have you been looking at eye tracking, have you been looking at full body skeleton, you know being able to see hands and feet in VR, or do you think that’s more far off?

Adi:        I’ve seen all those things. I’m not entirely certain how useful they are right now. Hand tracking is definitely interesting and I think is something that people should be watching for, but it seems like it’s probably not going to be a primary interface for a long time. In terms of pretty much everything else, we have a bunch of little proofs of concepts that seem like they’re working really well, but none of them have managed to get integrated into something like the Rift or the VIVE.

VRguy:  Okay. When we think about home use for VR, I would guess that today or in the next few months, most VR headsets are going to be used sort of in, maybe it’s the parent’s room, maybe it’s the teenager’s room, sort of connected to a computer for primarily gaming purposes. Do you see that changing? Do you see people using VR at home in sort of a different context or a different room?

Adi:        Putting aside anyone who uses it sort of professionally, like the VIVE for design and architecture, it seems like we haven’t really figured out how to make VR locally social. There are a few VR local multiplayer games where one person’s in a headset, someone else is doing something with a computer or a game pad or a paper notebook, like keep talking and nobody explodes, but right now, it does sort of seem to be a locally solitary pursuit.

VRguy:  You think it’s going to be some time before you’ve got multiple headsets, the family sitting in their living room, everyone wearing their VR or AR headset and doing something together.

Adi:        I think AR headsets, actually I could absolutely see people being in a room with other people using because it’s a bit more like Google Glass, but with fully isolating things like VR headsets, a lot of it probably depends on when you’ll have systems that are powerful enough to run multiple headsets, when it’s easy to buy them without that costing just thousands of dollars, and when you don’t really need everyone to have one for people to enjoy being around each other, because it’s really weird being in a room with someone wearing a VR headset.

VRguy:  You mentioned Google Glass and you mentioned weird, and I’m wondering about your perspective, whether Google Glass advanced the state of the art or made it take a step back. People were sort of weirded out or concerned about privacy when other people started walking around with Google Glass units in the street. What do you think the impact was on sort of the future of AR?

Adi:        I think in some ways Google Glass taught us what to expect and taught us the problems that people were going to see with a piece of hardware that in my opinion was just never going to be very good, that was never HoloLens style augmented reality, but it gave us a chance to see how people reacted to something that could overlay stuff on the world and could technically be recording and that blocked people’s eyes, even if it was only in a limited capacity, so I think it was a useful thing to learn from.

VRguy:  It’s a different use case, right, because I think Google Glass was more about information snacking. I sort of need to see something while I’m doing some other thing, and it could show me that as opposed to a HoloLens that would bring me more into the experience.

Adi:        Right. Google Glass was a HUD, and I don’t think it was a HUD anyone ever actually figured out a use for. It was like Wave, but I think that, right, you couldn’t really use it. You couldn’t interact with Glass very much. Glass was sort of about putting overlays on things.

VRguy:  When we look at sort of the consumer press for VR, there’s a lot of excitement. Oh, you could do this and you could do that in gaming and architecture and education and what have you, but let’s take it from the other side. What are you most worried about when you think about VR? Are you worried about addiction? Are you worried about people sort of losing touch with their surroundings? Are you worried about physical injury as I run around the living room and sort of knock over the couch? What’s your biggest worry for VR?

Adi:        I guess I don’t really have many of those worries. The thing I’m probably most worried about is that VR is going to be really boring and everyone will think that immersion is so impressive that they’re willing to accept really substandard content for it, and then I’m going to be very frustrated. I’m not really worried about addiction any more than I’m worried about addiction to MMO games or about people losing touch with reality. I mean, people bump into people sometimes with smart phones, and that doesn’t mean that smart phones are a panic waiting to happen.

VRguy:  You mentioned sort of beyond immersion compelling virtual reality experiences. When movies first started, it took a while, right? Originally the movie was just a camera placed at the first row of the theater just shooting the play, and over time the story telling for movies developed significantly. How quickly do you see that happening for VR? When will we have super compelling VR experiences beyond just the feeling of immersion?

Adi:        It seems like it’s happened fairly quickly. I’ve definitely started seeing really impressive games and ideas with motion controls. I think it’s the first time that I’ve felt things that absolutely could not be done anywhere else in a really amazing giant leap sense. I think we’re already starting to see things. We can easily see some really interesting projects in the next few years. In terms of it becoming a mature language, it’s really unclear because there’s so many different kinds of VR. What does a mature experience look like for something like your VR that you just put on your head? Does a mature experience refer to something like the VIVE, where VR is full body, so I’m not sure about that.

VRguy:  I saw one of your posts about, I think you called it low, medium, and high end VR, where I think low end was sort of Google Cardboard, very casual, you don’t even strap it on your head type of experience, and mid-level was I think the GearVR, hundred dollar solution if you have a phone, and then there’s the fifteen hundred dollar high end gaming PC and headset. Do you see a need for everyman’s VR, the VR headset at three hundred dollars, five hundred dollars for a complete system, something that works on your eighteen month old computer?

Adi:        I don’t know because I think that a lot of the market prices are going to change pretty drastically as technology changes, and the way that I guess you talk about trying to make an everyman’s cell phone twenty years ago and it still would probably have been a monstrosity, but soon it was very possible for anyone to buy something like a Razr, that the price really came down on its own as people figured out how to make them and figured out what you needed, and advanced the components enough. I don’t know. I don’t know about self-contained solutions yet. I think that the phone and computer connection model is working pretty well, and that I think as computer specs come up, which God willing they will, then yeah, you’ll be able to run it on a two year old computer or a laptop as long as it’s a reasonably good one, and it’ll be all right for everyone and not just people who have gaming PCs.

VRguy:  I think in sort of the middle ground, people are starting to think about the phone integrated into the headset, not in the way that I could take my phone from my pocket and place it into a holster, but basically using phone components, maybe no 4G modem, maybe no touchscreen, maybe no aluminum casing, and then integrating it into a headset so that I could get sort of dedicated mid-range VR performance even if I don’t want to use my phone, and so on.

Adi:        I haven’t seen anyone articulate a particularly good reason for doing that rather than using a phone. Maybe if no one had phones, you could make a case for it, but it seems like asking people to buy a lot of extra components that will drive up the price for benefits that aren’t entirely clear compared to something like buying an S7 and a GearVR. I can definitely think of cases where it would be better, and I could think of a design world where we evolve into something where that’s preferable, but it really seems like something, even if you don’t want to use your phone’s screen, something like LG’s 360 VR headset where you can plug in your phone and use your phone to power it. It’s not clear that you should have to buy something that has its own completely separated integrated computer.

VRguy:  Right, so maybe you don’t necessarily have to wear the phone on the face. If you don’t wear the phone, you can’t take advantage of the screen, but then on the other hand, you don’t carry the battery on your head. You can carry it on your hip.

Adi:        Right, and you have upgradable components that you can, you have the most high powered machine that you’ll probably be able to buy in your phone, and you can plug it into the best screen you can get with a VR headset.

VRguy:  How much do you see people worry about sort of the closed ecosystems where if you buy a game today for one headset, you’re not going to be able to use it on the other, and there’s really no guarantee that you’ll be able to use it on headsets that come out next year. Is that a concern, the lack of standards in the industry right now, or you think that’s just going to come over time?

Adi:        I’m a little bit concerned, but it’s hard to say whether VR will follow the path of something like a smart phone app where it’s sort of expected that everything will be cross-platform and you’ll be able to run most things on most things, or if it’s going to be like consoles where no one really expects that you’ll be able to play every Xbox game on your PlayStation, and you wouldn’t expect to be able to buy one and run it on the other. I personally hope it’s the former, and I’m curious what Google’s going to do with Android VR when it comes out maybe in a few months, maybe next year. I don’t know when.

VRguy:  Right. I think that it’s fair to say that consumers would like to be able to take their games cross-platform and say, yeah I understand that I’m not going to be able to run the highest end game on my mid-level PC or I understand that some headsets are better than others, but I don’t want to be locked into a particular app store or ecosystem, especially not at this stage of the market where some of the players haven’t showed their cards and things are evolving.

Adi:        I think that the thing that’s most weird at this point is the GearVR store versus the Oculus store because they’re effectively the same store and you can buy almost the same games on them, but you have to buy them completely separately. All the GearVR games that they’ve ported to the Rift, that they don’t seem to have figured a way to let you buy those once, so that’s sort of strange and siloed, but that’s partly like it’s segmented at the early stage of the market because nobody is building anything that they managed to full develop. Everyone’s just sort of experimenting.

VRguy:  Well, and the other reason could be that they worry about the revenue, right, so if some companies don’t expect to make money off the hardware and then expect to make money off the games, so I want to keep my own app store, I guess.

Adi:        Yeah, partly.

VRguy:  Good. What do you think is the duration of views for a VR headset? Is the typical use going to be ten, fifteen minutes, or do you see people really just watching full two hour movies in a headset?

Adi:        I don’t know. I can do two or three hours in games really easily, and I think in games that’s really fun and really possible. I have trouble with passive experiences, so I would have real trouble watching a two hour movie because I’m not doing anything with my hands and I’m not making any choices. I’m just sort of staring at something, and so having total sensory deprivation in that and not being able to, I don’t know, eat popcorn or look at someone else or do any of the other things I do during movies, it’s sort of difficult, but I think physically it’s totally possible and can be totally comfortable with something like the Rift.

VRguy:  Understood. Well, good. Adi, this has been great. Could you tell us where could people connect with you and your work online?

Adi:        Yeah. I write at Theverge.com, and I’m on Twitter at @thedextriarchy

VRguy:  Adi, thanks very much for coming on.

Adi:        Thank you. This was fun.

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