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What would you like to do?
What I mean when I say "I think VR is bad news".
This just got linked to by the Y combinator news account, without proper context,
so a brief introduction: A month ago (end of May / early June 2014) I had a
Twitter conversation with a bunch of acquaintances. One tweet in the middle
of that thread, with obligatory hyperbole, was me saying that I think VR is
bad news.
Well, that part of the thread (but not the rest that provides context) recently
got retweeted, and then someone asked me if I could explain what I mean by that,
and because Twitter is a great platform for delivering 140 character slogans and
not so great for lengthy explanations, I wrote this. So, obligatory disclaimer:
if you're thinking "TL;DR" and want a 140-character summary: there is none. If
I had been able to sum up what I want to say here in a single headline, I
wouldn't have written it in the first place. And now, without further ado, the
original text.
Okay, first off, I'm not talking about VR in the abstract here, as some
scary vague futuristic concept that I decided to be scared about after
reading too much cyberpunk books. :)
I'm a programmer, and I spent January 2012 through September 2012 (9 months)
and February 2014 through April 2014 (3 months) working for Valve's VR team as
a contractor. In 2012 I designed and implemented most of the optical tracking
system used in Valve's VR rooms, this year I implemented basic head-tracked
binaural 3D audio, updated some of the scenes in their VR demo reel, as well
as adding a new scene to it. All of the aforementioned code is in active use.
I have used numerous VR headsets extensively, including the Oculus Rift (the
*original* duct-taped prototype, even, as well as the proper DK1s and DK2s),
Valve's headsets, and numerous heavy and/or nausea-inducing contraptions that
I'm happy to forget. Anyway, point being, I'm not some luddite sniping at tech
I don't understand and don't want in my life; I do know both the current state
of the art in VR and some of what's coming, and when I say that I think VR is
bad news, I'm not doing so out of a position of ignorance.
From a tech perspective, VR is really exciting. It's easily the most interesting
(and challenging!) thing I've ever worked on, and not only is it an amazing
subject in its own right, working in the field you also get to work with lots
of brilliant people. As an engineer, it's a dream come true.
At the same time though, I'm deeply ambivalent about it, for several reasons,
and have been for quite some time. This is the beginning of the mail I sent
mid-September 2012 when I quit my first Valve contract:
Subject: I want out.
As the subject says, I would like to end my contract with Valve - preferably by
the end of the month, though I realize that's probably too short of a notice.
Part of this has to do with the direction of the project. With AR, there's a
variety of information display/visualization applications, all of which are at
the very least interesting and could turn out to be tremendously empowering in
various ways. The endpoint of VR, on the other hand - all engineering
practicalities of first aiming for a seemingly easier goal aside - seems to be
fundamentally anti-social, completing the sad trajectory of entertainment moving
further and further away from shared social experiences. (As I have mentioned
multiple times, I find the limited, formalized, abstracted and ultimately
alienated social interactions in most forms of online gaming to be immensely
So, at least as VR is concerned, while I find the tech interesting and
challenging, I am deeply ambivalent about what it leads to.
That is not the primary reason for this mail, but it certainly is a factor in
my decision.
[The rest of this mail has no relevance here.]
For context, this is a mail written to a colleague that I met daily, and as such
is a lot more strongly worded than I would write the same thing if I was talking
to the general public, so keep that in mind. For context, what's now the VR team
at Valve was, at the time, still trying to figure out its direction; there were
"AR" (not the crappy mobile phone augmented reality, something more substantial)
and "VR" sides, and as you can probably tell I would've preferred the team to go
for AR, but that's not what happened.
Anyway, as you can tell, I'm not a fan of online gaming in general, and as such
the inevitable framing of VR as the gateway to the ultimate MMORPG (which is
what tends to happen) is a sore point for me; I prefer my social interactions to
be in person if possible, and so far what of it made it into online games is
just incredibly basic - as you can tell, the objections I list in that mail are
fundamentally aesthetic, not moral or technological, nor are they things that
cannot be resolved. Certainly, it's easy to imagine an interactive environment
with a richer set of interactions than voice chat and going on raids. :)
[I'm oversimplifying here of course, but I hope it should be clear what I mean.]
In fact, part of my problem with VR is that people's expectations are
inseparably intertwined with the cyberpunk "3D Internet you can walk around and
have adventures in", and while that sounds fun on paper, if you've ever actually
tried to translate traditional game systems into a plausible VR setup, you know
that most of it just feels really bad. I actually think that a lot of the
really interesting things one could do with VR are not games in any traditional
sense at all ("experiences" is probably a better term), and my concerns do not
necessarily apply to those.
So, to make sure that's properly unpacked: when I say that I think "VR is bad
news", I am talking specifically about the VR-enabled MMORPG-esque shared
universes that cyberpunk has promised us :), not about the much wider and more
open-ended concept of "things we might be able to do with working VR headsets
once they exist". And lest I be accused of setting up a strawman here, the VR
MMORPG universe really *is* what a lot of VR enthusiasts are hoping for, and
simultaneously what a lot of really smart people working on VR have repeatedly
(and publicly) declared to be their goal for VR.
The thing about VR is, it really *is* qualitatively different from other
entertainment experiences. This is what "presence" is supposed to mean, an
originally very strong term. Mike Abrash used it in that strong sense at his
Steam DevDays presentation, but it subsequently got picked up by everybody
as a neat adjective to slap in front of things and immediately saw inflationary
usage; I'm sure someone will try selling 34" televisions as "providing presence"
soon, if they aren't already.
But the intended sense is that a VR experience with low latency, a good
display, wide field of view and good tracking really does feel different from
anything you can do on a regular screen. For me, it relates to on-screen
("cinematic") entertainment the way a movie relates to a radio play; they're
different forms, and good at different things, but a movie is just a more
"broad-spectrum" experience; it engages more of your senses directly. VR
compared to movies is much the same way; it feels very differently. Despite
what some people say, it does not feel "real" at all - you're very much aware
you're in a virtual world - and there's still regular glitches etc. to
constantly remind you that it's a simulation - but it does get your mind to
a state where it's good enough overall that you can "opt in" to believe in
it, without immersion breaking every half-second.
So here's what we have so far:
* VR, which is just a lot more "broad-spectrum" than most other types of media,
on a fundamental level.
* A general perception that the pinnacle of VR is a gigantic shared-universe
MMORPG (or several smaller partially overlapping universes, but close enough).
Running these things is expensive.
* The current tech business environment, where the standard way to sell a
service to people who aren't willing to pay the (full) price is for it to
be ad-financed.
So, here's the punchline: every single ad-financed operation is in the business
of "selling eyeballs". That's the actual term. And in the VR shared universe
case this is a *lot* more literal than most uses of the term.
The thing is, as has been pointed out numerous times, once you're selling ads,
the ad-buyers are your customers; the people on your service are, depending on
how cynical you're feeling today, either the product or your work force (in
the sense that they are the ones doing the work - generating ad impressions - that
actually keeps your business running).
And having an immersive virtual environment - hey, MMORPGs even without VR
get people to sink lots of time into them, and if anything that's probably gonna
be more pronounced in the VR version - that is set up to, ultimately, generate
ad revenue (and hence prioritize the needs of the advertisers over the desires
of its users) is just an inherently gross concept to me.
All these trends have been there for a long time. I used to be hypothetically
antsy about a major ad-run operation going long in VR. Now that Facebook has
bought Oculus, that's not a hypothetical anymore.
Now, I'm writing this just as the kerfuffle about Facebook running psychological
experiments on their users is ebbing. This is not surprising; if you're trying
to maximize engagement (and thus ultimately ad revenue), these are the kinds of
trials you run, because you want to know what to show to people.
So imagine a shared universe MMORPG, expressly operated by a company that
*already knows all your friends*, that's trying to maximize your engagement
("hey, all your friends are playing right now, don't you want to join too?"),
selling your attention to advertisers, and by the way, also building a detailed
profile on everything you do so they can do all of this even better in the future.
It's okay, go on doing whatever you want, we just want to watch! (Through your
own eyeballs if possible.) And mind, this has nothing to do with Facebook
specifically; given the current set of business practices in the tech industry,
this is pretty much what you end up with no matter which big player ends up
owning the thing. (Google is trying to tie you to their services too. As are MS
and Apple.)
That's a very cyberpunk future all right, but one I'd prefer not to live in.
- Fabian Giesen
July 2014.
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djabatt commented Jul 12, 2014

Bravo Fabian. A couple things: all big companies are trying "tie" its users to their service and as your data and compute cycles become more cloud based you have no choice to be in some big co's service. I have a different line of thinking on VR than you do. What interests me mostly about VR is not gaming because that's all a big bore. I want to see creatives discover new storytelling vernacular within VR space. These new experiences can be powerful and perhaps even life changing. It's my opinion VR will become broadly adopted once their is entertainment that is non game based. All that said your post is packed with important ideas worth reading a few times and perhaps some folks will be inspired.

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drhouse commented Jul 12, 2014

I hate Facebook probably more than most people, they wouldn't be able to target me because I don't use them for anything, but I think there's a kind of counter-force to all the Orwellian ad-supported content - if it begins to feel too intrusive or obnoxious, then users will switch to someone else who uses a more subtle approach and they will win out in the "eyeball" wars. Kind of like Twitter vs Google vs Facebook.

There might be an imbalance of power (free content generation) at the beginning of the VR boom, but like with the internet and video games, web hosting, email, other free services, etc... it might even out among smarter companies that are savvy enough to respect their customer base or at least not annoy them too much.

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I'm just a lay person, a consumer in this space, but I have a lot of the same concerns you have, Fabian. It sounds like tech which will be immensely entertaining and thoroughly addictive. At some level we humans don't do very well with that combination. It's not like "drugs" per se, even though it can be every bit as addicting and damaging. Will the future bring VR rehab?

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"The endpoint of VR, on the other hand ... seems to be fundamentally anti-social, completing the sad trajectory of entertainment moving further and further away from shared social experiences" ..
proof that it doesn't have to be ..

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Well written, Fabian.

To be fair though, do you see such a significant difference in intent between the people making non-VR applications (today's video games or "social" web apps for example) and tomorrow's VR applications? That is, the driving forces which tend to lead some companies - to some degree inexorably - towards viewing customers / human beings as products, lead there wholly independently of the latest whiz-bang feature set (and yes, I gather VR's trajectory is both very whiz and very bang), don't they?

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mdtjr commented Jul 12, 2014

@rogeressig Imgur galleries of mutual masturbation exist, 34, yet according to my local law enforcement, few consider the activity social.

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Tarmil commented Jul 12, 2014

@rogeressig Throughout his post Fabian explicitly says that his beef is with the vision of VR as an MMORPG-style virtual universe, and that he has no problem with the types of punctual "experiences" that VR can provide. The gallery you linked illustrates the latter.

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igl commented Jul 12, 2014

Great post Fabian. Great Mind.

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In that light, thinking of a traditional MMORPG. ie: world-of-warcraft and you see items in the store.

Combat boots sponsored by NIKE, Mountain Dew battle armour, or Activia yogurt potions you kind of get a cringe like reaction to VR that i got when I read this.

Ideas in this space have to tread careful, as it always seems like VR desire and promise has always been there and it comes around every decade but its dies given technical limitation or the direction its given.

Bottom lines, lets not set back VR for 2020s because facebook puts farmville front and center and makes it feel like you're really hoeing your field and visiting your friends from your bedroom.


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Yep. So it turns out that your point was exactly as people imagined. Context only cemented that. You think you were misunderstood. I think you very understood all too well.

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Amylion commented Jul 12, 2014

S... got real already!

From my correspondence with customer support at Frontier of the "game" "Elite: Dangerous":

"When I pledged for this product I had no idea that I would be forced to accept such a privacy invading paragraph of the EULA (regarding 'in-game advertising')." [...]

"Elite Dangerous is set in a highly commercial fictional galaxy, and its entirely natural that fictional adverts appear in the game, which they do in and around starports. We also want to reserve the right to include real-world adverts in the game should we choose to do so in future. Any such real-world adverts would be appropriate in the context of the game." [...]

Since "Elite: Dangerous" is a "Facebook Rift" game, it's clear that they plan to make profit with selling the headtracking data (to the "dynamic advertising provider"). So most probably to Facebook.

EULA of Elite: Dangerous Beta installer:

"6. In-Game Advertising

The Software Product may incorporate technology (which may be provided by Frontier or third party service providers engaged by Frontier (each a "Dynamic Advertising Provider")) which enables advertising to be uploaded into the Software Product on your PC, and changed while the Software Product is being played on-line. In order that the Dynamic Advertising Provider is able to direct advertising appropriate to your Software Product and geographic region, as well as to the correct location within the computer game, certain non-personally identifiable data and information may be retrieved and retained by the Dynamic Advertising Provider including your I.P. address, geographic location, in-game position, and information concerning the appearance of advertising visible during your gameplay (for example, the length of time an item of advertising was visible, the dimensions of the advertisements). In addition, the Dynamic Advertising Provider may assign a unique identification number which is stored on your PC and which is used to monitor and calculate the number of views of dynamic advertising during gameplay. None of the information collected for this purpose including the identification number can be used to identify you.

The technology employed by Dynamic Advertising Providers may be located outside your country of residence (including outside of the European Union).

Where a Software Product incorporates dynamic advertising technology, the technology which serves the provision of dynamic in-game advertising is integrated within the Software Product. This means that if you do not want to receive dynamic advertising, you should only play the game when you are not connected to the Internet."


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I think it's important to consider the potential benefits as well as the potential downsides.

VR could be quite isolating, but for some applications that might actually be a good thing. For example, it might be useful for some kinds of learning/training to be immersed in the content and free from distractions.

Virtual Reality is not just for gaming. And those that use VR for gaming are probably those that sat and played video games on their own anyway.

New technologies always have more uses than we initially imagine. Some of them will undoubtedly be "bad", but others will be "good".

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Not sure what's the big problem with the way other people will use this technology. There will still be paid, indie games that offer things like the ones you like. You will not be forced to use VR in a particular way just because other people do so, just as nobody forced you to blog on wordpress even if many people do so.

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nikola commented Jul 15, 2014

To be honest, almost the same criticism has been expressed re: Second Life. You know, that virtual world where respected real-life companies purchased virtual property with real money to build virtual showrooms on, actually believing that some months down the road, everyone would be in Second Life in their spare time to stroll across these showrooms, looking for ideas which real-life products to buy with real money.

It's safe to say that in 2014 Second Life does not play a significant role in any representative group.

Every time a company has a product in the pipeline which no one else is seriously trying to compete with, there are only two possibilities: Either the product idea is brilliant, or it's bullshit.

Is Valve's idea of VR brilliant? Will it really become a significant product in any market?

Come on. You know the answer.

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Great piece Fabian & strong articulation of what's both wrong with VR and what should be (real AR with make-the-world better use-cases and/or social). If you still have some hope for the space & would love some input into a real project seriously tackling the "good stuff" with the resources to do it all, please get in touch @mattmiesnieks or

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This is my first post.
I have had Dk1 since early on as an enthusiast (love it) anxiously await dk2.
bartender for 15 years now
pc gamer 33 years now.
39 altogether.
I game for fun and have no problems with social interactions and don't anticipate a problem in the future.

Op makes me feel like I have to defend gaming.
This article seems like a guy quitting video games that doesn't really like video games in general (not just having a problem with the way games are built).
If that's the case I'm glad he's taking his loveless hands away from gaming.
Original poster admits he doesn't like online gaming, which is obviously more social than offline gaming. He worries it will make gaming more antisocial (THAT IS IRONY) ; says the guy who It would appear is antisocial anyways.

post passion:
Elite Dangerous Premium beta is amazing in vr. I don't think the experience of flying a space ship through seemingly endless space and asteroids is going to be available for real anytime soon; feels way better than doing it on the 2d screen. I don't believe everybody is going turn into an antisocial alien just because vr's endgame is a take it or leave it matrix.
Just because there's going to be some facebook ads doesn't mean a new company can't come along and not use facebook and do virtual reality too. I for one want to play now. I'm not getting any younger.

Here of the 2 sides of the rift. A.) One side dislikes the other for the desire to escape reality more fully than through a 2D medium. aka most but not all females I know. B.) The other side dislikes group A for wishing nobody got to do what side A doesn't like. In reality VR is here to stay. If you don't like it, please buy it anyways.
As far as the influence of ads over the human psyche. I'll worry about/control my own mind thank you.

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ctankep commented Jul 17, 2014

Books are inherently "anti -social" as well —
Though like any other medium it's the application that counts.
To date most game design remains highly directed and manipulative
of player experience. But it doesn't necessarily need to be such a
dead -end as far as human experience is concerned.

On thing that VR is already doing is forcing developers to unlearn
all these poor abstractions [ from limited bandwidth of interaction ]
to consider psychology, neurology and other more naturalistic
approaches to presenting an experience.

I see this is as a good thing as the industry desperately struggles
to prevent games from becoming ever more recursive in their subject
matter. I'd argue too that games are barely "sociable" in their current
form because they generally fail to include "being human" as their
subject matter or in the expression of their systems.

Rather these "systems" are often spreadsheets at heart and don't
provide qualities such as reflection | contemplation | cognitive adjustment
of one's mental model that affective pieces of art or literature might impart.
The main thing is not to shoot the messenger here, but rather to be
considerate of how and why we are making these constructs in the
first place. The differences between love, addiction and delusion.

What VR does provide in spades is the ability to create "empathy"
through experience. That's really potent stuff and the work of Nona
De La Pena and others is worth seeking out if you want some case
studies. This in a world of senseless reduction and imitation to the
point of parody. Give me something essential that relates to the
human instead.

— Chuan

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