Where is Virtual Reality’s Killer App?

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

According to Wikipedia, a killer app is defined as:

In marketing terminology, a killer application (commonly shortened to killer app) is any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology, such as computer hardware, a gaming consolesoftware, a programming language, a software platform, or an operating system. In other words, consumers would buy the (usually expensive) hardware just to run that application. A killer app can substantially increase sales of the platform on which it runs.

Classic examples of killer apps in the early history of computers were the VisiCalc spreadsheet for Apple II series microcomputers, and Lotus 1-2-3 and WordStar for IBM PC compatible microcomputers. The popularity of these software applications drove sales of the hardware platforms they ran on.

So, what is virtual reality’s killer app? What VR applications are driving the uptake of VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the range of Windows Mixed Reality headsets?

Sibjeet Mahapatra writes for TechCrunch:

Compelling virtual reality shipped to developers and consumers nearly two years ago. The first flagship headsets arrived from Oculus  and HTC back in the spring of 2016, offering enough resolution, frame rate, field of view, latency mitigation and position-tracking to produce believable visual immersion.

But no one seems to know what to do with it. To date, no killer app has extended the promise of VR from a novelty to a sticky experience or utility that reaches beyond enthusiasts to resonate with the consumer center of mass.

This isn’t to say that great experiences don’t exist. Apps like Tilt Brush, Elite: Dangerous and Google Earth VR have earned rave reviews and plaudits from enthusiasts. But we have yet to see a household phenomenon like Halo or Lotus 1-2-3 — applications that single-handedly propelled their respective platforms to wide use. At CES 2018, one industry analyst referred to VR as “drawerware,” referring to the likelihood of headsets to be stuffed in a drawer after a few forays into jejune worlds.

Sibjeet ends off his article by saying that immersion or presence is the key to VR:

Each new iteration of core VR hardware is a rising tide that makes any VR application more appealing to users on the margin. But killer apps often emerge on imperfect versions of the platforms they bring to life. The charting function of Lotus 1-2-3 strained the limits of the early graphics hardware on x86 PCs, but until 1-2-3, no one knew that programmatic generation of charts and graphs was even possible.

A killer app doesn’t need to be a perfect encapsulation of a new technology’s potential. All it needs to do is hint at the grand vision by providing a single, irresistible demonstration of value over the status quo.

In the case of VR, I’m not certain if that demonstration will occur on this generation of hardware or the next. But I believe it will be an experience that compares in intensity or joy or uniqueness to the best experiences we can access in reality. If you’re working on VR content or applications, consider this advice: Give us the ability to be present in a vision of the past, or a counterfactual world. Give us the feeling of life underwater or in space. Give us the sense of being present for an experience completely native to virtual reality, not merely an emulation of experiences we can already inhabit. Give us something real in its own right. That’s when the mass market will start to believe — and buy.

Many companies are trying to get at this elusive immersion or presence in different ways. For example, Staramba Spaces is betting that you will want to spend time with a detailed 3D recreation of a famous celebrity, religious figure, or soccer star.

Platforms such as High Fidelity and Sansar are aiming at a sort of sandbox model very similar to Second Life, by giving creators the tools to build whatever experiences they wish. Some programmers have gone so far as to create inventive, fun games such as HoverDerby and The Combat Zone, but so far it’s still been an uphill battle to encourage people to come into Sansar to try out these games.

VRChat had a surge in usage due to the livestreamers on Twitch and YouTube, but most of those people didn’t stick around once they finished trolling each other on the platform. People came, kicked the tires, and (mostly) left.

What’s clear is that virtual reality still hasn’t discovered its killer app yet. Such an app might come from an unexpected corner. But what it will offer is something that is so compelling that it drives the purchase of VR hardware. We’re not there yet. But there’s no telling what might be just around the corner…

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Exploring Digital Identity Through Avatars: A Look at Drax’s Our Digital Selves Documentary

Alice Bonasio has written an article for The Next Web about Draxtor Despres (a.k.a. Bernhard Drax in real life) and his recently-completed documentary called Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me.

Titled Exploring Digital Identity Through Avatars, the article looks at how a variety of differently abled people choose to represent themselves in virtual worlds such as Second Life.

For those that speculate about the potential of social VR, it is interesting to note how inhabiting a virtual world allows these people to form and maintain meaningful relationships and connections with others, as SL user iSkye Silverweb recounts:

I don’t think my partner and I ever would have met in the physical world, even if we were in the same city, and it is because I am deaf.  Communication IS an issue for me; I would always be concerned about it, with meeting anyone.

It’s a raw and intensely emotional investigation into the power of living vicariously through an avatar, and how this – as one user puts it – “provides her with sustenance” and helps people to cope with all manner of both mental and physical disabilities.

It’s a great article and I urge you to go over to The Next Web and read it in full.

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Cody Lascala wearing a VR headset in Sansar