[Reminder – these blogs are analyst personal opinion, not Gartner published research]
“Open up your firewalls to let your people access us!” said Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life, as I recall. He was being interviewed on stage by my colleague Steve Prentice (now retired), who asked what the hundreds of CIOs and IT leaders in the audience could do to advance corporate use of immersive virtual worlds for business.
It was April 2007, Gartner IT Symposium, and Second Life was the red hot next-big-thing. It was fast becoming a mainstream belief that VR was an imminent next step beyond the web. So much so, it was on the front cover of BusinessWeek. A Fortune magazine article told how then CEO of IBM Sam Palimsano was keen on it, and how he and his his avatar were already hanging out in virtual world meetings. It was the second time in my life I got excited about virtual worlds and the second false dawn.
I have always been a tech optimist. My first period of belief in business VR came in the early 1990s. I learned to use Superscape VR software and I tried out a very early HMD. In Myron Kreuger’s excellent book Artificial Reality II, I read how legendary commercial software pioneer and IBM Fellow Frederick Brookes was researching VR. He hypothesised that VR might deliver massive and complex information to the pattern recognition engine of the human brain via the visual cortex, to amplify human intelligence (IA), and that would be at least as important as AI. But business VR didn’t happen then. It didn’t happen in 2007 and I really don’t think it will happen in 2027 either.
I have come to the conclusion that business VR is IT’s version of nuclear fusion energy. The idea is incredibly seductive, it feels like it should work, and it seems like we are always less than a decade away from achieving it. Huge amounts of R&D effort are poured into it and countless billions of investments over decades and still… and STILL…. it is just around the corner out of reach.
I’m not talking about the niche use of VR for exploring stereo isomeric molecules in pharmaceutical research labs, or occasional fancy fly throughs to wow the clients of global architecture firms. I’m talking about the everyday metaverse that becomes a common work and play space for most people and businesses. That scenario is still so far off, that I am not sure it will happen in my remaining twenty-five or so years of actuarially predicted lifespan.
Here are five reasons the tech optimism has been thrashed out of me on the idea of mass business VR, and I argue it just isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
- The gaming world hasn’t bought into it. Serious gamers don’t use HMDs. One source says only 2% have an HMD. The tech may be getting better- but the people most likely to dive into the immersive metaverse first, aren’t. What chance businesspeople will start meeting here if gamers don’t?
- Wall Street isn’t interested (internally). The big banks are doing huge amounts in applying AI. They are doing a lot with blockchain. But the VR immersed banker or trader just isn’t a big idea of interest. Money will always steal any edge it can get. If VR data visualization and meeting doesn’t work for the industry with the most money to invest – why would other industries take it up?
- CEOs are not using it. Here’s an interesting historic fact – six months after the iPad came out, over 40% of CEOs were using one in their job (Gartner CEO survey 2012, paywall). At launch the iPad split opinion and many commentators thought it would be a flop – who needed a massive iPhone? But it if a new tech works for CEOs they will flip to it almost overnight. Today’s Gen X and millennial business leaders will take-up any seriously valuable technology that will give them an edge in their work – from Zoom to private jets. Many years after their launch, how many CEOs use a Vive or Oculus? (I wonder how many would even know those brand names).
- The CEO of Metaverse Platforms Inc. probably doesn’t commonly use it in his business day job. OK – I don’t know that. But do you think he is wearing one of those face huggers for several hours per working day?
- People hate wearing facemasks to protect themselves from a killer virus in a global pandemic and many of them just won’t do it. That’s a lightweight piece of soft cloth across the mouth and nose to prevent serious illness. What chance they will regularly wear a heavy lump of hard electronics across the eyes to make online business meetings slightly less dull?
I remain a tech optimist. I do believe that one day business will commonly be conducted in a fully immersive 3D visual metaverse. Let’s call that phase of economic advancement “metaversial business”. But it will not happen in the 2020s. It probably won’t happen in the 2030s. Filling the human field of view with a realistic immersive image space, in a way that our physiology, psychology, anthropology, and sociology can all be comfortable with, is an incredibly hard problem to solve. Yes, it is probably harder than rocket science, and creating a commercial space industry. Perhaps Elon Musk has already come to that conclusion and we’ll have to wait for Neuralink, before dunking our full senses in the metaverse becomes a common, regular way for business people to interact.
17 Nov 22 ADDENDUM. I am grateful to my colleague Eric Purchase for pointing out this wonderful, humorous Youtube tourism advert for “the Icelandverse”