Mark Raskino, Distinguished Research Vice President, Gartner
I remember Second Life founder Philip Rosedale saying, “Please open your firewall and get into our world!” interview, when Steve Prentice asked the hundreds of CIOs and IT leaders in the room how they can drive enterprises to use immersive virtual worlds to conduct business.
This happened at the Gartner IT Symposium Summit in April 2007, and Second Life was a smash hit event at that time. It quickly whipped up a mainstream belief that VR was about to overtake the web, so much so that it was featured on the cover of BusinessWeek. A Fortune magazine article tells how Sam Palimsano, the CEO of IBM at the time, was enthusiastic about it and how he and his avatar roamed the virtual world of meetings. This was the second time in my life that I was excited about the virtual world, but it turned into an illusory hope again.
I’ve always been a techno-optimist. I first believed in commercial VR in the early 1990s. I learned to use Superscape VR software and tried out a very early HMD. In Myron Kreuger’s classic book, Artificial Reality II, I learned how legendary business software pioneer and IBM researcher Frederick Brookes was working on VR. He hypothesized that VR could amplify human intelligence (IA) by feeding the human brain’s pattern recognition engine with vast amounts of complex information through the visual cortex. The technology is at least as important as AI is now. But commercial VR didn’t come along. It didn’t appear in 2007, and I’m sure it won’t appear in 2027 either.
I have come to the conclusion that commercial VR is like the fusion energy of the IT world. The idea is incredibly alluring, it feels like it should be possible and we always seem to be less than a decade away from making it happen. So we have done a lot of research and development in this area, investing hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades, but it is still… It seems to be within reach, but it is actually out of reach.
What I’m talking about doesn’t include VR being used by pharmaceutical R&D labs for niche uses like exploring stereoisomeric molecules or wowed clients of architecture firms around the world with the occasional dazzling demo. I’m talking about being the everyday metaverse where most people and businesses work and play together. It’s still so far away that I’m not sure I’ll see it in the 25 or so years left of my life (according to my precise predictions).
Here are five reasons why I’m losing tech optimism about the notion of large-scale commercial VR, which I don’t think is coming anytime soon.
1. The game industry has not yet “buy it”. Hardcore gamers don’t use HMDs. Sources say only 2% of gamers own an HMD. The technology may get better and better, but the people most likely to dive into the immersive metaverse first are not. How can business people start meeting inside if gamers don’t use it?
2. Wall Street may not be interested. Large banks are developing a lot of artificial intelligence applications, and they are already doing a lot of work on blockchain. But a banker or trader immersed in VR is just the tip of the iceberg. In the face of money, any advantages of this technology would be worthless. If even the industry with the most money isn’t investing in VR data visualization and conferences, why should other industries embrace it?
3. The CEO is not using it. Here’s an interesting thing to say. Six months after the iPad’s launch, more than 40 percent of CEOs use the iPad at work. When the iPad came out, there were mixed opinions about it, and many critics thought it would be a failure – who needs a giant iPhone? But if a new technology works for CEOs, they switch to it almost overnight. Today’s Gen X and Millennial business leaders will embrace any technology of value that gives them an edge at work, whether it’s Zoom or a private jet. And how many CEOs are using Vive and Oculus years after they launched? (I don’t even know how many people know these few brands).
4. Not even the CEO of Metaverse Platforms Inc. uses it very often in his day job. Well, I admit I don’t know if that’s the case, but do you think he’d be wearing that face wrap for hours every weekday?
5. During a global pandemic, people even hate wearing masks to protect themselves from deadly viruses, and many just don’t want to. It was just a light, soft cloth to cover the mouth and nose, and it was still a serious disease. So how could they be constantly covering their eyes with a heavy clump of hard electronics in order to slightly reduce the dullness of online work meetings?
I’m still a techno-optimist. I am sure that one day we will generally conduct business in a fully immersive 3D visual metaverse. We may call this stage of economic development “metaverse commerce”. But it won’t be in the 2020s, and probably not even in the 2030s. Getting humans into a realistic immersive image space in a way that is acceptable to our physiology, psychology, anthropology, and sociology is unimaginably difficult. Yes, it’s probably harder than rocket science and creating a commercial space industry. Perhaps Elon Musk has come to this conclusion, and we have to wait for the Neuralink brain-computer interface to succeed before immersing our full senses in the metaverse and making it a common daily interaction for business people.
*Editor’s Note: This article represents the author’s personal views and is not a research report published by Gartner.