Why did Google Glass, the wearable computer specs, fail in beta?
Duh. They were expensive, distracting, a risk to the privacy of others and if you wore them, you looked like a dick. A posing, preening ultramegadick.
But that’s not the main thing. The main thing is that, apart from a few looks of envy and scorn from passersby, Google Glass didn’t change users’ lives. The thing augmented reality, but just not enough. Had the glasses made anyone’s day-to-day existence significantly easier or happier or richer or sexier, they would be in mass production right now. Like automobiles or Viagra or phablets or pre-strung dental flossers.
Wearables will get there, and probably implantables, too, when the benefit trumps cost and stigma. Some worthy things take a while to catch on, like cheeseburgers, rural electrification, and to this day, science.
The occasion for that observation is an exhibit in New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, which asks us to consider another part of the near future right now. The exhibit, titled “Sensory Stories,” offers glimpses of futuristic technology -- or more accurately, futuristic application of existing technology -- to satisfy humans’ primal instinct for storytelling.
Curated by the non-profit Future of Story Telling organization, “Sensory Stories” tries to imagine the possibilities of narrative beyond the mere spoken, printed, projected word. The result is an odd amalgamation of novelties (a Goldilocks book with a smell component built in), amusing but contrived and useless art pieces (a Google Cube displaying six interwoven stories simultaneously, one per face of the cube) and jaw-dropping demonstrations of Virtual Reality.
For example: Birdly, which simulates the experience of flying under your own power over the streets of Manhattan. You lie prone in what looks like a dentist’s chair, strap on a set of Oculus goggles and commence flapping and soaring, flapping and soaring, able with arm and body movements to weave through the skyscrapers. Again, it’s a 360-degree perspective. A fan blows wind in your hair to add to the illusion. It’s so (virtually) real, if you could snatch rodents and unleash droppings, you’d be an eagle.
This technology arrives just in time, as more and more consumers have demonstrated what they will and will not pay for from media companies. Entertainment content? Sometimes, up to a point. Journalism? Hardly at all.
But for experiences…yes. For those people happily pony up. Live events, prizefights, theme parks. To the extent that media storytellers can make their content not just absorbing but experiential, the value proposition will change. Would you pay to experience the sensation of flight? Yes, you would.
Would you pay to feel the surge of human power and emotion and history in the making at the Boston bombing verdict, or the presidential inauguration, or a military operation? Yes, that, too. People at the moment even pay a premium for 3D movies. How quaint.
Let me put it to you this way: remember Quadraphonic sound? Yeah, well, 3D is Quadraphonics. VR is the final frontier.
I mentioned Birdly. Because it offers agency -- the ability of the user by his own movements and decisions to affect the story -- the integration of personal sensors and imagery is very much the state of the art. Yet it is a lesser VR application that offers the most journalistic value.
Another Sensory Story was a VR documentary called "Clouds over Sidra." It injected the viewer into a Jordanian camp for Syrian refugees. There you could reach out and all but touch the people, the crude barracks, the dusty desert, the chain-link fencing, the cooking pots, the scuffed soccer ball kicked around by the kids on hot blacktop. And you could feel the palpable despair. To view the scene is to be on the scene, with a vantage in any direction -- not least the aimless clouds above.
Which is to say: better. Better than films, better than radio’s vivid “theater of the mind,” better than the most potent written description -- because it offers the miracle of presence, however virtual.
Consider another example: six months ago I happened to be in midtown Manhattan during the street protests over the non-indictment of the cops who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold. I was recording audio for my radio show, in the thick of the demonstrations. It was a vivid scene, filled with sights, sound, tension, emotion.
Three months later, my students outfitted me in a pair of cardboard goggles and via iPhone, showed me those same protests captured in VR, offering a 360-degree view of my virtual surroundings -- an experience that was more immersive and dramatic than actually having been immersed there in the flesh. At that moment, the goggles stayed put, but the scales fell from my eyes. So, that’s why Facebook dropped $2 billion for Oculus Rift.
Not only would you pay Facebook -- or Microsoft or The New York Times -- to deliver such an experience, mark my words, in actual reality soon enough you will.