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The imminent age of virtual reality is an illusion

The imminent age of virtual reality is an illusion

When faced with technology options, we are choosing the ones that require the least commitment to undivided attention

Forget the hype about immersive virtual reality. VR is the polar opposite of where we're going. We live in a time when expedience is the pre-eminent capability and accessibility trumps utility.

We watch movies and play games on 5-inch phone screens instead of 50-inch televisions. We shoot photos with an eight-megapixel smartphone instead of the $1,000 SLR gathering dust on the shelf. We hunt and peck text messages one-handed while walking around the grocery store because we don't want to give our undivided attention to shopping or a five-minute phone call. Now we're starting to put on smartwatches because it's too much of a hassle to reach into our pocket and retrieve our smartphone.

So I'm skeptical about the imminent, brave new 3D Web that's supposed to be launched by Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus. We're becoming less and less willing to commit our full attention to anything for more than a few minutes without checking Twitter, sending a text or taking a selfie. When faced with technology options, we are choosing the ones that require the least commitment to undivided attention, the fastest startup time and the lowest learning curve. That's not VR. Not today. And not for the near future.

Immersive VR will likely capture a healthy share of the tens of millions of hard-core immersive gamers around the world, especially the people who already hole up in their homes for 10 hours at a stretch playing video games or hanging out in Second Life. It will bring new people into those mediums. VR will also be a boon for scientific and training simulation, virtual tourism and, of course, virtual sex. But until we can wear contact lenses or transparent glasses that shift us seamlessly between the physical world, augmented reality and virtual reality, don't hold your breath for mainstream use for day-to-day activities like online shopping and social networking.

On the software side, it's going to take a lot of time for current websites to provide compelling VR content. It's still unclear where virtual reality will enhance current online experiences enough to justify the additional cost, effort and attention. Remember when 3D television was supposed to be the next big thing? It hasn't taken off, partially because of the hassle factor of glasses, but also because most of the content we view doesn't gain a lot from 3D. I'm not convinced that most of the current activities we do on a flat screen are going to benefit from VR.

Given the immaturity of the medium, there's going to be a long learning curve for user experience and design people to figure out how to translate the Internet flatland into a 3D metaverse. The type of intuitive gestures and user interfaces we take for granted on smartphones took time to evolve. There's also the issue of interoperability, as multiple VR hardware vendors get into the market. Standards are going to have to emerge. Just as the art of filmmaking evolved over decades, VR entertainment will also need to go through cycles of creators pushing boundaries and consumers then catching up.

Finally, if you live in a household with other people, shutting yourself off inside a helmet is a very different attention stealer than checking Twitter on your phone while watching television with other family members. If you don't believe me, ask your spouse.

Dave Elfanbaum is a co-founder at Asynchrony. He is an active participant in the virtual world through his pseudonymous character, Botgirl Questi, and her blog, videos, and social networking/public speaking presence.

Read more about personal technology in Computerworld's Personal Technology Topic Center.

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