Wishing for a different virtual reality

I have an Oculus Meta Quest 2. Last night, I turned it on again for the first time in months and played some Beat Saber; I’m going to finish writing this, then go play some more.

I feel guilty that I’m so disappointed by this device.

Granted, I might not be the target audience, but it’s not clear to me who the target audience even is. I really like video games and board games; I adore a lot of rhythm games. I just don’t ever go out of my way to play them. I used to spend a lot more time playing video games, but that’s just not really a big part of my life anymore.

As a physical thing, the Quest 2 is fine: good, even. They really nailed down the price point, getting just enough processing power into a lightweight, physically satisfying device. It feels to me as though it’s not quite there in every other aspect. I’ve gotten the impression from somewhere that Meta feels like they want to be on the forefront of a revolution in VR, owning the hardware stack so that they don’t need to compete in walled gardens. Fine! I think that, if this is what they’re trying to do, then they’re right. But with Apple seemingly getting in the game soon, it feels to me like Meta has squandered their head start.

Naturally, I’ve spent some time trying to track down what, specifically, is leading me to be so disappointed. Sure, I’m not a VR expert, but I can feel the ways that my design sensibilities are being pushed against; of course, now that I’ve pinned those down, why not post it somewhere? I hope you’ll find at least one thing here that you agree with, and at least one place where we disagree.

I have a strong suspicion that Apple’s design sensibility will address these issues. If I were involved in the VR world, here are the things I would be investing the most into.

1. There aren’t enough applications

I’m sure a lot of this is my own bias, but it seems like Beat Saber is the VR application with the most staying power. In order to get user content, though, you have to enable developer features on your device and install mods. This process is certainly not difficult, but it’s not simple, either.

Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be anything I actually want to do with this thing. There have been a few games I’ve picked up, but once I finished the game or I got bored or realized I didn’t like it, that’s it. I feel like I’ve exhausted the catalog.

You can place any individual’s experience with any video game into two categories. The first category — the one that most games for most people will go into — are games that become one title in a catalog that you flip through, like a book that’s on a stack on your bedside table that you work through and manage over time. You have some sort of list somewhere, and when you finish one game, you pick up the next.

The next category are games that become part of your life. For some people, these are games that you devote time to daily or at least weekly for year-long stretches; maybe sometimes you’ll put the game down for a bit, but you always come back to it. It’s truly part of you.

I’m not seeing a reliable stream of either type of game coming in.

There’s only so much you can do about this — from what I’ve seen, the documentation and development tooling out there aim to make developing a game for VR just as straight-forward as developing a game for flat surfaces.

I don’t think, however, that the incentives make the choice of moving to the extra dimension as attractive as sticking with what you know. If you’re just starting out as a new developer or designer, it seems to me that you’re going to pick the more traditional space.

The quickest, most obvious answer is to throw money at the problem. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: developers, developers, developers, developers, developers.

2. It doesn’t integrate with my life

The Quest 2 is running an operating system that’s based on Android 10. This is evident in small ways all over the OS.

When I get a text message, I have to take the Quest 2 off of my face.

I just today learned that you might be able to connect notifications to a phone. I don’t think the device has actually encouraged me to do this at any point. I can’t use this feature — my wife has already installed the app you have to install on your phone and connected her account, and, at time of writing, there can only be one phone per Quest. I’m sure if I was able to get notifications, and I got any notification, I’d have to switch devices to act on it in any way.

I would be shocked if Apple didn’t address this issue. Rumors have mentioned that Apple is planning something related to “VR/AR” — this implies to me that the way this device integrates with the rest of your life is going to be part of the design of the device. The rest of Apple’s line-up really excels with this concept: I don’t need to care about the barrier between my computer, my watch, and my phone. I can do everything from anywhere.

The inverse is also true: because I have to constantly take the device off in order to come back to the real world, that means the barrier to putting it on in the first place is higher. I’m not going to aimlessly just “strap in” without an explicit goal; reducing the number of real-world restrictions that the user takes on when they use your device means that it’s much easier to decide to go “be in VR” for a bit, even without an idea of which app I’m going to open.

I feel like Facebook used to be good at knowing when to link into third parties — the biggest example probably being Twitter, in the early days of both platforms — but here, it really feels like it’s all Meta, all the time. This seems, to my admittedly untrained eye, to be a mistake.

3. It’s inherently anti-social

I have a bunch of video-watching apps downloaded to the Quest, and I will use them approximately never, because a large amount of the media I consume is while I’m sitting next to my wife.

I remember throwing parties where we had Rock Band set up, and groups of people ranging from two to four would play a song or two as part of the natural course of being a person at a party. Beat Saber has a “party mode,” but watching one person flail around by themselves while you can barely overhear some speakers that are pointed directly at that person’s own ears is not a social activity.

VR branding really tries to convince you that VR is a social thing. Sure! But this is done by trading the ability to be social in the real world with the ability to be social in the digital world.

The next generation of VR should turn this weakness into a strength. It needs to generate a lifestyle that doesn’t pretend that VR is, in many ways, anti-social. It needs to generate scaffolding for your physical life which makes this tension between existing in the physical and digital easier to traverse.

4. It’s got branding issues

When I strap this phone with two lenses to my face and the Meta logo pops up while it turns on, I cannot help but think unkind thoughts.

I will never, ever call anything part of the “metaverse.” There is something so deeply, disturbingly uncool about VR right now. Unless things change, it seems to me that a decade from now, people will think about virtual reality as a briefly-existing ghost town where scammers pretended that pictures of fake buildings were inherently stores of value.

The thing that attracts so many people to VR — as a user, developer, or both — is that you attach a device to your face and are instantly transported to another magical world. Even the environments that essentially serve as your VR device’s desktop wallpaper are magical: I have spent time just sitting there, looking around at a fake room. You, the developer, basically get this magic for free. Virtual reality is a sweetener that is orders of magnitude more sweet than natural sugar, without any adverse health benefit. Right now, you cannot buy this sweetener in stores without it coming suspended in vials of vinegar.

Meta needs to drop the “the.” This is, I believe, why Apple is going to be so successful here, once they’re ready to ship: elegant experiences are baked into the company’s DNA.