Ever since Aerosmith’s music video for “Amazing” featured virtual reality, I’ve been excited for the technology to become, well, a consumer reality. After Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2-billion in March of 2014, the hype behind VR caught a major tailwind, and the technology was deemed the next innovation that would revolution daily life. It only seemed like a matter of time before I was rocking an Oculus Rift and hanging out in digital space with virtual Elon Musk.
But now that virtual reality headsets have been on the market, it’s shocking to see that VR sales are actually expected to lag behind the holiday sales of virtual assistants like Amazon’s Echo. In fact, according to Reuters, “brokerage Piper Jaffray will cut its 2016 estimate for sales of VR headsets by 65 percent to 2.2 million units in an as yet unpublished report.” So why is virtual reality having a slower start in the marketplace than expected?
Christopher Mims, a technology columnist at the Wall Street Journal, raised doubts on virtual reality in March, saying the technology isn’t ready for prime time. “As new, highly touted headsets arrive this year, how much content will be available, and how deep will these experiences be? The short answers: not much, and fairly shallow.” Mims is suggesting that the lack of content has contributed to VR’s slow start.
While software could be a reason to delay the emergence of VR in America’s living room, I think it’s a bit overstated. For example, I remember saving my allowance for an entire year as a 10-year old to buy Nintendo 64. When the console was finally released, there were only two games, Mario and Pilot Wings, and I played them more than I would like to admit. However, to get a sense of why VR’s having a tough time barging into the prime time, it’s important to look again to science fiction, the medium that perpetuated its rise in the first place.
I recently finished “Ready Player One,” a science fiction novel by Ernest Cline, which is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, and it’s set in an American future where a virtual reality utopia can be accessed through a technology similar to Oculus Rift. In the novel, the popularity of the virtual world (called the Oasis) can be explained by technological innovation and a need to escape bitter realities of an American dystopia. For years, science fiction writers have discussed a similar moment where virtual reality would become so appealing that it will overtake the allure of the physical world—or provide a better option. “Ready Player One” suggests that virtual reality became popular not just because of technology but because their planet and social lives were in tatters.
I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Cline’s America and the direction of our country today. The reason that virtual reality is lagging behind in sales is not that we’re lacking technology or even that the hardware is too expensive; its simply that we’re lacking a catalyst, a reason to lose the appeal of the physical world and jump blindly into a virtual one.
Unfortunately, the catalyst that will push virtual reality into the American living room is not technological but political. The election of Donald Trump will be the spark that creates an exodus from the physical world into the virtual. Donald Trump has tweeted that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese, and his cabinet picks perpetuate the idea that his administration will dismantle Obama regulations that were deemed important to curb global warming. Trump’s pick for the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA countless times in his career and was a main opponent against the Clean Power Plan. Pruitt will be in charge of protecting the environment after serving as the “key architect of the legal battle against Mr. Obama’s climate change policies,” as pointed out by the New York Times. During the Trump administration, there is little doubt our environment will be at war with its inhabitants and policy makers.
Many Americans will crave an escape from the decay of our physical world in addition to our decaying sense of equality. If Trump moves forward with a Muslim ban, his deportation of millions of illegal immigrants, and his continued onslaught of the media, then Americans will need an escape from the images of America losing its democracy. It will be too tough to watch. For instance, see the quote from “Ready Player One” below.
— Zachary Boslett (@zboslett) November 9, 2016
America will need a model, a “Real Player One” virtual utopia, where cities, economies, ways of life, inclusive communities, and imitations of our national parks can exist in a virtual space that feels so real we can almost taste it. America will need a place where empathy and truth can flourish. America will need an alternate reality, an almost mirror to itself. Children will grow up saving their allowance not to buy a Nintendo 64 like me to play Mario; they will save their money to buy an entrance into an old America where the dream still existed.
Virtual reality sales simply need a push, and Donald Trump is just the bully to do it.