When Mark Zuckerberg posted this photo of himself walking past an auditorium full of people wearing virtual reality headsets, it provoked predictable mockery on Twitter. People described the photo as dystopian — and obviously there is something a little bit creepy about a room full of people totally ignoring each other.
But the internet's collective freakout misses an important point: No matter how ridiculous it might look to us today, there's every reason to think virtual reality is going to be a big deal in the next few years. I've talked to several people who have had a chance to try out Facebook's Oculus Rift, and every one of them was blown away by the experience.
Virtual reality is such a promising technology that I'd bet money that within the next 15 years, most people reading this article will spend many hours with some kind of virtual reality goggles strapped to their face, watching 3D movies, playing 3D video games, or consuming forms of media that are just being invented now.
And this won't be the first time new technologies are widely mocked a decade before they become indispensable. Lots of smart people thought the internet was a joke 20 years ago. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart mocked the idea of cellphones with cameras in them in 2004. Today, of course, most Americans use their camera-equipped, internet-connected smartphones many times every day.
Of course, the virtual reality gear we'll all have strapped to our heads 15 years from now probably won't be as bulky or ugly as the headsets people are using today. Over time, VR headsets will inevitably get lighter, sleeker, and more user-friendly, just as PCs and smartphones have. But people who were using bulky, ugly PCs to access the internet in the 1990s weren't being ridiculous — they were ahead of their time. And so are today's VR pioneers.