With Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift, virtual reality finally seems poised (after twenty-plus years of false starts) to go big. And while many people in tech assume Oculus’ acquisition means VR is guaranteed to go mass market, they’re probably underestimating the many challenges it now faces. To name just a few:
Thanks to numerous movies and TV shows featuring virtual reality, the public already has some deep preconceptions about the technology—many of them extremely negative or unrealistic.
It’s still very unclear if there’s even a market beyond hardcore gamers for a headset device likely to cost hundreds of dollars for many years.
A variety of PR disasters could undermine VR before it even has a fair chance to grow. (Having worked for Linden Lab’s editorial team in the run-up to Second Life’s hype wave, I can share countless horror stories here.)
Concerns over nausea and other frequently reported adverse reactions to VR continue to be raised, and as more people try it, will continue to grow. (Consider danah boyd’s compelling Quartz post on women’s reactions to VR.)
Fortunately, many of these challenges can be addressed with a well-planned communications strategy. Here are just a few tips we’d recommend—not just for Oculus Rift, but the many other VR-related companies now seeking to reach a mass audience:
Create a Communication Plan Around VR Sex—Before It Becomes a PR Crisis
Virtual reality sex—it’s already happening, it’s going to happen much more, and VR companies are likely underestimating how much of a barrier to mass market adoption it’s going to create. Large retailers are apt to get skittish about selling a product perceived as largely being for pornographic use. And much as VR companies might prefer they weren’t being made, indie developers will keep producing NSFW viral videos featuring VR sex, confirming this perception. To avoid seeming coy or disingenuous, better to address the topic directly, acknowledging that like every medium before it, virtual reality will be used for sexual content. At the same time, VR companies need to steadily build a counter-narrative which shows how much more the technology can be. Which takes me to my next point:
Plan for Strong Outreach to Senior Citizens & Disabled People
If you follow VR news at all, you’ve likely seen this viral video of a 90-year-old woman totally enthralled by the Oculus Rift. It points to an important usage of VR as a tool for senior citizens and other people whose physical limitations make it extremely difficult to expand their everyday experience range. It’s probably for this reason that virtual worlds like Second Life are disproportionately popular with the disabled (such as wounded veterans) and older people. To go mass market, VR companies should make a concerted effort to actively reach out to these audiences, which will help create a clear, socially beneficial use case for virtual reality. This will in turn undermine any “it’s just for porn and gamers” perception.
Openly Address Criticisms of VR’s Limitations
It’s possible we missed it, but there seems to be little or no response from leading VR developers to the danah boyd post we mentioned above, even though danah is easily among the most influential and respected academics working in technology. (On a quick Google search, this dismissive forum thread of Rift developers complaining about an “Attack of Feminists” is among the first—hardly a promising start.) Credible reports of VR’s market limitations need to be transparently acknowledged, researched, and hopefully corrected —ideally by a non-profit coalition of commercial developers and academic researchers working in VR.
And that’s just the start to the challenges virtual reality faces. Introducing a totally new, potentially scary technology to the market is going to take years of thoughtful, careful conversation. It’s not enough to say that VR is cool and amazing and oh-so reminiscent of our fondest sci-fi fantasies. Early adopters of Google Glass also said similar things. Notice how’s that going, lately?