Last week, I returned to Los Angeles to check in on the “creative mecca” of virtual reality. If I had been taking a drink every time someone compared VR to the Wild West, I would’ve been slapped with a DWI.
By the end of the week, I was sick of the cliché, having heard it independently from eight different people. But clichés become popular because they’re true, and the Wild West metaphor is, in fact, a great reflection of the VR moment — and not in a totally good way.
Right now, VR is a story of little towns that might someday become big cities. There will be bloodshed. It’s almost high noon.
“It’s no longer a question of if, but a question of when and how,” Visionary VR co-founder Gil Baron said of VR becoming a business.
LA, more than any other city, is eager to make VR work because it seems poised to open new business lanes for everyone from big movie studios to tiny tech startups. There’s plenty of bad news in the content world: Declining theater attendance, the cracking of the pay TV model and the assumption that video games should be free, just to name a few. So VR is seen as a chance to start fresh, a clean slate for everyone involved.
“The mass market is much more open to the idea of putting on a VR headset,” Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price said. “It isn’t something that you might see in a fringe science-fiction movie any more.”
And for some VR advocates, it’s about more than just money. So they say, anyway. Just as the Wild West is romanticized in the American imagination, the truest believers see themselves and their communities as pioneers. They’re exploring and solving big problems now, they say, that will make possible a better, dramatically different future.
The more skeptical, though, will remind you just how many of those problems there are — and how it might take a really long time to solve them.
Just months away from the technology’s consumer debut, it’s not clear yet which platforms consumers and developers should bet on, and whether a sizable market is really going to pay for VR content.
The delay of the HTC Vive, a high-end VR headset made in collaboration with the PC gaming juggernaut Valve, rankled industry insiders. “I’m not even sure HTC will survive long enough to release it,” one observer quipped.
But another bigger issue has emerged. As we saw at E3, some of the best demos in the VR world continue to be out of reach for most consumers. Attendees of the VRLA Summer Expo on Saturday spoke most warmly of video games made by Otherworld Interactive and VRcade that required a room to walk around in. They also cheered a race-car simulator from Two Bit Circus and a horror movie made by VRSE that employed special chairs to make their videos more believable.
These elaborate arcade and amusement park-like attractions are even more demanding than the ones we wrote about at E3, many of which will require investments of thousands of dollars in new hardware for the basic living room version of VR.
The concern is that those comparatively prosaic experiences won’t hold your attention long enough to support a sustainable business.
“I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and now when I put on a display at a convention or a conference and am just sitting down — I don’t have a reaction to that any more,” said Evan Suma, a research assistant professor at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “The novelty effect wore off.”
That means the tech industry may need to develop new whiz-bang features at a rapid pace to keep it interesting. Commercializing this will be difficult because not everyone will be able to have a dedicated VR room, and almost nobody will buy dedicated treadmills and chairs to enhance specific VR experiences.
For some people, the mere act of watching someone play a video game induces nausea. For many others, strapping on goggles and experiencing VR for the first time is far worse. Just sitting around and moving your head can inspire vigorous swallowing to prevent throwing up.
Although several decades of VR content development has helped creators control the nausea factor, it’s far from perfect.
“The biggest calamity that might hit the industry is something out of the gate that causes nausea for a lot of people,” one VR content creator said.
This is a battle that will be extremely hard to win. VR developers and company have already made big strides to prevent people from throwing up, sharing what they find works and doesn’t work with each other at conferences and online. And the platform owners will be able to exert some control over what content they host on official channels, such as the Samsung Gear VR’s Apple-style store for VR content. However, all of that might be moot.
As reasonably priced 360-degree cameras used to create home VR-ready video hit the market, all that shared knowledge goes out the window. There are no technological means to stop someone from picking up a $500 VR camera and spinning around in circles. And once someone gets sick from watching that video in their Facebook feed, one source observed, why would that person or their friends ever bother to invest in VR video?
For now, the VR landscape is, in every sense of the term, the Wild West. On the eve of modern VR’s consumer debut, its proponents are holding their breath and betting that structure and revenue will follow the creative chaos.
“As a culture, we’re not all acclimating to this medium at the same time,” IM360 VP Andrew McGovern said on a VRLA panel. “All of us have tried out a headset and understand this discourse, but if I’m creating some content for someone who has never experienced VR, that’s a really big challenge. Am I trying to impress them? Am I trying to impress this room?”
At this point, the answer to McGovern’s question is not immediately clear.
The big platform owners — Facebook, Sony, HTC, Samsung and Google — are also waiting to see who wins before rallying behind a common technology standard.
Until that day comes, the VR industry is stuck in a Mexican standoff.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.