Why Nobody Wants Virtual Reality (Part 2)

Athletes show us a glimpse of promise for VR using 360 video

In my first post, I argued that nobody wants virtual reality because its hardware is overly charismatic. It exhausts your brain with a bounce house of stimuli, hijacking your perceptual system like a long night out.

But do you know who’s into that type of thing? ATHLETES. Professional athletes.

If you want to reject my hypothesis that nobody wants VR, athletes are a good place to start. They thrive in the sensory world and aren’t afraid to use bulky, specialized equipment to improve their performance. The pseudoscience of Tom Brady aside, an increasing number of athletes are using data with wearables to push the bounds of their training. Even my wife, a former collegiate swimmer and gadget skeptic, is using smart goggles right now to train for the Paralympics.

It would seem that all of the stars align to make VR an essential device for the athletic and sports industry. But there’s one major thing standing in the way: the business of selling software.

Let’s start with how I found myself Chief Technical Officer of sports startup and media darling STRIVR Labs.

The Pixel Quilt

Shortly before I started graduate school in 2014, another student Derek Belch came to my advisor Jeremy Bailenson wanting to study how VR could help better train athletes. More specifically, he wanted to use it with the Stanford Football team, where Belch was also a student coach.

Athletic Intelligence, a sort of combo of pattern recognition and cognitive ability, matters in football. Belch and Bailenson believed that using a VR device to replay patterns over and over would be a more effective training solution. Academic VR labs and athletic companies like Nike have long used data-driven movement metrics for insights. But in the coaching and recruitment world, especially football, reviewing video was still the assessment standard. VR gave us the potential to build huge, movement datasets by collecting data from the device’s tracking sensors.

Creating an interactive VR scene takes a ton of work and resources. A real-time rendering engine like Unity or Unreal must have digital 3D assets in the right places, at the right levels of detail, with the right defining properties. If you don’t have the budgets of big video game or movie studios, realism of interactive worlds is challenging. It was a challenge for us in academia for the same reasons.

If we went the rendering engine route for Belch’s training solution, it risked looking like a budget version of the video game Madden, which other companies were already attempting. See EON Reality’s video below for what existed on the market then:

To maximize behavioral benefits, we didn’t want it to feel like a cheap video game. Athletes are super perceptive, they’ll notice all the subtle movement details that might be wrong. The football player in the product video above doesn’t even hold the football! Instead of rendering a fully 3D scene, we needed something more photo-realistic.

On the side of my lab duties, I was moonlighting as a commercial photographer. Even though I knew little about football, I was adept at the world of cameras, lighting, and editing.

When I did some early need finding with Belch, I learned that football staff shoot video at every practice and game, then turn it around quickly for review. They typically use camcorders and clunky media player software like DV Sport (or the newer Hudl) to do this. This training workflow presented an additional technical challenge: creating or updating new VR content rapidly.

Enter 360-degree video, which Disney really pioneered in the 50’s. In 2014 it wasn’t all that different, you needed multiple cameras with wide angles that produced images that slightly overlapped. The combining of multiple videos into a single one was the tricky part, and took a lot of manual work called “stitching.” This process sews the overlapping edges of each video together like an elaborate pixel quilt. Finally, the image is warped so that it can project on the inside of a 3D sphere.

Here’s an example 360 image of the Stanford campus Main Quad after final stitching and warping:

I’m more social scientist than engineer, which is why I adore map projections (I have a tattoo of my favorite, hah). Have you seen a flat world map? That’s called equirectangular, it’s what 360 uses. It warps things a bit, which capture the struggle humans have in representing the 3D world in 2D ways.

There are major drawbacks to 360. While wearing a VR headset, you can look all around as if in a virtual planetarium, but you can’t move beyond where the cameras physically recorded. Meaning you’re stuck at a point in space.

Then there’s the issue of stereoscopy, which gives videos the illusion of 3D. It’s easy to do in photography, but video introduces all kinds of movement or depth disparity that strain your eyeballs. Its risks don’t usually justify its negligible realism gains. Even Oculus VR leadership Palmer Lucky and John Carmack (arguably, the hardware experts) used to joke about their inability to tell the difference between monoscopic 2D and stereoscopic 3D. Brains are weird, they fill in the gaps!

Most logistically challenging was the need to put the camera on the field to capture plays. To get a good angle, the 360 camera needed to be as close as possible to a player but just far enough away that they wouldn’t trip or collide with it.

These all seemed like okay tradeoffs to make, especially if it meant enabling sports teams to generate their own VR content libraries quickly. With a decided capture process in place, Stanford’s football coach David Shaw, granted us a single April practice to film.

It worked. Along with the help of Bailenson’s lab, I built a software wrapper that acted like a rudimentary media player. Athletes, especially the quarterback, could review plays in VR from the perspective of the field. We captured the usage data and output it to a text file to eventually summarize trends for coaches.

By the end of the Stanford Cardinal 2014 football season, our training prototype had reached enough players, collected enough data, and gathered enough attention to signal Belch to take it bigger.

Changing the Game

STRIVR Labs, Inc. (Sports TRaining in Virtual Reality) was cofounded in January 2015 by Derek Belch, Jeremy Bailenson and NFL retiree Trent Edwards. Because its early stage development came from Stanford technology (me + VHIL), they went through Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing to get proper invention approvals. Stanford deferred on ownership and took no equity. An ideal outcome for startups emerging out of academic labs. I opted to be Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in the beginning while still remaining a graduate student, until we hit a scale where that would be unreasonable.

Much of the time spent early on in STRIVR was in sales and pipeline optimization. I built out our early patents in making the 360 video process faster and scalable. We automated the manual steps it took to offload, organize, stitch, and upload media to the cloud. One of the biggest problems we solved was predictive media organization. Camera companies like GoPro hadn’t yet released software tools that could match up clips shot at the same time. We built an algorithm that did it from a media hub and uploaded it as fast as possible to the cloud. I called the tool the dumbest thing I could come up with: Upload Blitz.

We experimented with better camera rigs that didn’t use GoPro, a company we came to loath through through their unreliable hardware and our partnership attempts. Here’s a prototype 360 rig, using rubber bands to attach Garmin cameras around a Philz coffee cup in what might be the MOST Silicon Valley thing ever:

We also experimented with making the rig less obstructive to players on the field, to avoid injuries. The software promised to reduce injuries on the practice field, so we couldn’t have it create more! Here’s early employee Jordan Kutzer adjusting a boom arm in the backyard of our new company headquarters (see: townhome) in Menlo Park:

There’s a sense of immediacy in seasonal sports which made everything URGENT. With only so many weeks in a season, every minute of practice and training is precious. Kutzer and I would stay up at night, fixing bugs and promising customers media issues would be resolved by the next morning. I lived at our office, attended class during the days, and slept little.

Things accelerated when the Dallas Cowboys (coaches in football all know each other) agreed to a trial session at their training camp in Oxnard, CA. I spent days sweating in a Cowboys trailer with players and staff to make sure everything was running smoothly. When Tony Romo, the Cowboys QB, took off the headset and said he loved it, we cheered at our first commercial sale.

To sign more NFL and NCAA team customers, we decided to use off-season or recently released athletes as our account managers. This was deliberate to gain the trust of coaching staff. They’d rather have a person that knew football first, and camerawork second. I built training and education efforts around using our camera hardware and software so that account reps on the ground could own all aspects of support. This meant teaching them how to debug camera and VR hardware issues, which were plentiful.

I highlighted these challenges during my Stanford e-Corner interview, which called STRIVR “user-centric because it has recruited actual players to help build its products”:

With VR becoming the next big thing in venture capital, STRIVR elevated in hype. Much of our PR came naturally, thanks to the culture of sports. Both Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business would write case studies on this period in STRIVR’s early market trajectory.

As STRIVR slowly grew its sports customer base, scale limits became clear. With a fixed number of professional teams, even with league deals, growth would stagnate. So it made sense to start exploring other revenue streams for inevitable venture rounds.

One of those revenue streams was creative services.

Get Off My Field!

Madison Square Garden, the New York entertainment empire, called us with an idea. They wanted us to build a custom VR visitor experience for one of their venues. This is called an “activation” in advertising. Brands usually award these to large creative agencies like MediaMonks because they require specialized creative teams. With STRIVR’s deep expertise in sports and athletes, it gave us an advantage. When we launched the New York Rangers goalie fan experience for MSG, it opened up a new line of business we called STRIVR Studios.

I agreed to move to Los Angeles upon graduation along with my talented brother and cinematographer Kit Karutz to run our production efforts. Kit and I couldn’t find a quick place to live in LA, so we ended up renting a sailboat in Marina Del Ray, working long days and getting shaken by seals sleeping on our deck at night.

With the Hollywood vet Logan Mulvey working as our executive handling clients, Kit and I became a VR production powerhouse. We teamed up with the experienced studio Talespin, who taught me most of what I know about formal production work. Together we made commercials for Bank of America, Visa, Lowe’s, a bizarre skincare brand called Murad, and Stephen Curry’s personal brand SC30.

My favorite was an insane warm-up routine for PGA Tour Champions, which Kit and I edited from an Atlanta hotel room while taking breaks only to eat a nearby Waffle House. Don’t miss Belch getting lowwww in the background:

Productions put us in a weird position since we often promised to interfere little with athletes’ practice time. At one point while filming a commercial for Visa, Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler looked me in the eye while I held a camera and yelled, “Get the fuck off my field!” Visa execs looking onward merely shrugged. Kit and I worked our magic and activated the experience at an NFL game in Chicago. I stole a rare media quote, claiming that STRIVR Studios can:

“Create for each fan the sense that they are intimate with these players that they support and this team that they support.”

Our production efforts were scrappy and innovative, which I loved. We competed and won bids against larger creative agencies. In few other creative career paths would I have so quickly directed Stephen Curry, worn a Rangers uniform, or took models on a Malibu beach picnic. It was even extra cool to be chosen for the prestigious Cannes Lion Startup Academy because of our creative efforts.

Leapfrogging Tomorrow

Athletes aren’t the saviors for bringing virtual reality mainstream. It’s not that it couldn’t benefit them. It’s more that selling software to coaches is a pain that doesn’t scale.

It’s hard to say how much of the resistance I saw over the years was the VR technology itself versus something new for a community hesitant to change. Just look at the way NFL was forced to use Microsoft Surface tablets, which leapfrogged the black and white photos they had previously! The NFL didn’t gradually ramp up their tech, they went from something completely analog to something overwhelmingly digital.

Leapfrogging happens a lot in technology. Certain communities have barriers in cost or culture that cause them to hold out until a perfect storm of things forces them to adopt.

Initially, I was stoked at the opportunity to make the sports field more quantitative. Coaches never really used the data as I had imagined it, which was not a problem unique to STRIVR. Sports are facing the same challenges with data that most private companies are encountering. More data becomes useless when it isn’t understood, or doesn’t exist in a culture that promotes it. Professional sports, for all their dollars, are a long way from systemic Moneyball.

I often wondered if our solution for sports training was a charisma machine. Something Arizona Cardinals QB Carson Palmer, an early STRIVR user, said during an interview to Sports Illustrated stuck with me over the years:

I’m archaic, and I thought, There is no way this can change the way I play quarterback. But I am all in on this. I’ll watch pressures on this during the week, and I swear I have flashbacks from a game, seeing the same pressures.

The mental flashbacks are a promising anecdote, but then he goes on to say:

The other thing that is cool about it is watching mechanics, because I can put the camera behind me. So if I’m in the pocket standing one way, I can put the camera behind me, I can have it to my right and to my left, and I can watch my feet.

According to Palmer, maybe it’s the wide, close camera angle helping visualization. I’m not convinced VR mattered as much as we thought. I think more likely, 360 video was a novelty that made watching practice tape less boring.

Software success is measured in sales, not efficacy. Customer growth matters more to investors than science. With its Seed venture round of $5 million, STRIVR pivoted to enterprise training for Fortune 500 companies, like of Walmart employees.

The pressures of venture capital force startups to find routes to grow fast. In software, those routes seek to keep costs low and replicate customer gains for huge returns. This makes sense if we’re talking about file sharing or social media startups. That’s because it’s 2020 and we’re all familiar with a web browser. It makes less sense if we’re talking about a new computing platform, which requires time and literacy to understand.

Many interesting VR startups of 2016 buckled under the slow consumer adoption and heavy weight of venture capital. What we’re left with is companies like STRIVR, Talespin, and Upskill. And remember Worldviz? They’re still around, building VR training solutions for companies like it’s 2002.

As a result, our possible future is now that we’ll use immersive devices for a long time to train for more mundane things. That doesn’t mean that I’ll want to. Safety training is mostly boring because my dumb lizard brain can’t comprehend future risks!

New technologies like VR need the space to breathe and find more unexpected use cases. More interesting is what STRIVR is doing lately, by finally using data in innovative ways for its customers. Like promoting workers to management by assessing their skills in VR.

Get used to intelligent systems using novel inputs like VR or spatial microphones to improve social dynamic outcomes. Like this product we prototyped in school, meant to diagnose teams and offer actionable ways to improve teamwork:

I think we’ll look back at the media and entertainment formats of the 20th century as these flat windows. The 360 pipeline we innovated at STRIVR gave it a scalable edge, and opened up a whole new level of photo-realistic training at a much cheaper cost. We helped open the window.

With the closing of our Seed round, I didn't want to sell enterprise software. Which is why I departed STRIVR to found my current venture Blue Trot in early 2017 and become my own worst nightmare: an artist.

Next up in Part 3, I’ll talk about the “empathy machine” so often quoted by artists and technologists. I’ll try to sort through Hollywood’s continual efforts and promises to make VR the next big thing for eyeballs everywhere, and my experiences of it through globally touring my graduate thesis and VR experience The Crystal Reef.


Special thanks to Jordan Kutzer and Piera von Glahn early edits of this post! Especially Jordan, for keeping me sane at the STRIVR HQ during those many sleepless nights. No thanks go to Jay Cutler, who I’m glad is finally retired.

The views represented above are my own, not of my company Blue Trot Group or any of its partners, affiliates, or clients. As an early founder, I also own shares in STRIVR, Inc.

Why Nobody Wants Virtual Reality (Part 1)

My 25 years of interacting with the technology and its failures to go mainstream

Virtual reality (VR) isn’t what most people want. It’s often called a party trick, but party tricks ask little of their watchers. VR is more like a bounce house. Something you might want to rent and have for a social event, that’s exhausting and fun, but not something you want to be jumping in all day long. Even a summer camp where I directed, which offered bounce houses as a daily activity offering, would see enthusiasm from kids eventually wane. Or sometimes they’d break their arms.

I have an Oculus Go on my desk, a product which Facebook recently announced it was killing. I use it daily—not the device—but the box. To raise my laptop higher so I can attend video calls. This is more useful to my daily needs than anything the device can offer. Why do so many VR devices similarly continue to gather dust and fail to capture the mainstream?

In 2020, there’s a long pattern of consumer behavior over the previous 25 years that I’ll use alongside my personal experiences to ultimately show that most people don’t and won’t want VR. The reasons that VR continues to fail are that it:

  1. Is overly charismatic (Part 1)

  2. Has conflicting imaginaries (Parts 2-4)

  3. Competes zero sum with other media options (Part 5)

Let’s start with Nintendo.

Nothing’s Free in Waterworld

At eight years old, I owned a virtual reality device, and it was terrible.

In 1995, Toys ‘R Us was my playground. My mom ran a daycare in our home, which meant that toys were central to her business and our lifestyle. We couldn’t afford a lot, but rotating through some toys a few times a year kept the toddlers from revolting.

I still remember the way Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console looked on display when I first saw it there. Behind translucent plastic and lit brightly, it looked like an artifact stolen from the future and put in a museum. My mom must have felt similar, because we brought one home. We could only afford it because it was already on sale, $50 instead of the original retail of $179.99. It came bundled with Mario’s Tennis and I chose Waterworld as an extra title. A bizarre choice given I was too young to experience the cinematic masterpiece that is still a Universal Studios show.

Nintendo’s Virtual Boy isn’t always considered true virtual reality the way that hardware engineers describe it today. Modern VR relies on a ubiquitous system of tracking and rendering. That is, tracking how a user physically moves and rendering to a display fast enough for it to feel real. Virtual Boy didn’t really do that, instead you placed it on a surface like a desk and peered into its display while holding a controller. Its 3D display was monochromatic, which means it rendered red pixels against a sea of black. Its limitations didn’t really matter, to me it still felt different than anything else at the time. Especially with Mario’s Tennis, where I could perceive the depth of the court.

I’d count the Virtual Boy as virtual reality because of how different it felt from other games at the time. It didn’t matter that there were less colors, or that there was no tracking. Peering into it still occluded the outside world. Waterworld felt like my world, a fate I don’t wish on any other child.

A mere week into my Nintendo Virtual Boy ownership, my eyes started hurting. The eye strain it created concerned my mom enough to return the device. My experience wasn’t unique, the device was a gigantic flop. It only sold 770,000 units, making it Nintendo’s worst selling console of all time.

The experience of owning a Virtual Boy was memorable, but it didn’t hugely impact my childhood. Not in the way that opening up a Nintendo 64 on Christmas or crushing on a girl or learning to swim did. I wouldn’t even think about VR again until I ended up building it myself in college.

Hello, SpiderWorld

In 2006, as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, I was utterly bored. In an effort to combat the lack of inspiration my classes offered, I became a Research Assistant at the Research Center for Virtual Enviornments and Behavior (ReCVEB). My duties were to design VR worlds using Vizard, a software suite which combined Python scripting with OpenGL graphics and commercial VR hardware management. It did all the work that real-time engines like Unity and Unreal do now, but Vizard’s parent company Worldviz served customers that were mainly academic labs, not game developers.

I programmed my first VR world to do the thing I feared the most: to cross a sea of spiders. Using a simple 3D room model, I filled it with large, animated spiders triggered by user proximity. In a dark room, illuminated by a spotlight, a user could cross the room only through the spiders, which would scurry away. Also, I made the spiders HUGE, like Arachnophobia movie-ending huge. My psychology textbooks called this “stimulus threat” and it taught me what VR excels at: facing a fear. This was vastly more interesting than my Intro Psych classes.

My statistics professor, Nancy Collins, was running a study at our lab looking at social support in couples. A couple would come in, we’d separate them into different rooms, then we would put one in VR. We lied and told the subject that his or her partner was also in VR, networked from the other room. He or she would have to cross a cliff edge and we would manipulate the level of support the “virtual” partner offered in the task. As the published study describes it, “Perceptual cues were added to create a more enhanced experience. For example, rocks fell off the cliff when participants stepped on or near their location, and localized sound was added (e.g., the sound of wind swooping up from the canyon or rocks falling).”

I designed and programmed those perceptual cues. My virtual rocks (find them above) scared the shit out of people! It felt weird, to know something I created caused a real fear in people. Not to mention how pissed couples were at each other when I reunited them after the study concluded. Even though we debriefed them quickly and told them the truth about the deception, I wondered if our study was doing more relationship damage than we thought.

Without fully knowing it yet, after building those spiders and rocks, I was hooked on my very first charisma machine.

Charisma Machines

My colleague Morgan Ames’s wonderful book and body of research explores certain technology products as charisma machines. While difficult to pinpoint (she does a much better job than I), these types of products usually promise some major transformation through implementation of the technology.

Much of this lies at the hands of the charismatic leaders that push or lead design on the products themselves. Think of Elizabeth Holmes hawking Edison devices with Theranos, or Adam Neumann selling glorified real-estate at WeWork. They share a pattern of promise that confirms an ideology, often with biases and a narrow outlook on the world or its cultural nuances. Elon Musk for example, sells charisma machines and builds a cult of ideologically aligned followers only rivaled by Steve Jobs.

Charisma usually comes at a cost, and many of these pioneers mentioned employed questionable values to achieve their vision. They sometimes bring big innovations, like sending the first humans into space on a commercial rocket. But the cost is human, in the people treated poorly or exploited along the way (or killed, in Holmes’s case).

Virtual reality is the ultimate charisma machine. Both in the way leaders have promoted its salvation but also in the way the technology itself works. VR is an exploitation of the human perceptual system. To create convincing VR, we need to first understand the brain that it deceives.

All Reality is Virtual

Jim Blascovich, my social psychology professor at UCSB that ran ReCVEB, used to always joke that “all reality is virtual.” What he meant was that our brains create a construction of reality based on our experiences and best information at the time. We don’t see things as they are, instead we do a complex series of pattern recognition where our brain fills in the gaps. Think about optical illusions, which are exploits of the visual perceptual system. Vice covered some of these as explained by Facebook’s Chief Scientist Michael Abrash. Abrash, a programmer by trade, not a brain scientist, borrows decades of psychology and cognition research to point to why it matters for VR. It matters because VR is a glorified perceptual illusion.

Most VR hardware systems of the last couple decades work by tracking how a user moves their head, and then rendering an updated image quickly to a display. These displays are usually plastered to your face, awarding it glorious terms like FaceToaster or CyberGoggles or FaceComputer. Popular Science even covered the widely shared side effect of Oculus Face. Nobody looks better while wearing one of these. Especially not me, which is unfortunate given that if you Google Image search my name this comes up:

Rex Sanders | The Dish


Another way to describe VR is not as a system of hardware but as a feeling. Psychologists and cognitive scientists call this “presence,” a confusing term to kind of describe how real something feels. There are categories too, like “environmental presence” and “self presence” and “social presence” all to describe the accuracy of a digital illusion.

But feelings are a tricky way to describe technology. This argument says that anytime I feel like I’m somewhere else, it counts as virtual reality. This is problematic given how frequently the word immersive is used to describe literally anything now. The act of dreaming you might also count here as the ultimate VR. At night, your mind becomes an imagery factory, churning out nightmares and fantasies as a closed loop.

It’s too frustrating to say that everything is VR because that also means that nothing is VR. We can’t just throw our hands up at philosophers and cognitive scientists. Especially when there are products that need to market and sell.

Let’s compromise and say that:

VR is the replacement of enough perceptual stimulus with digital ones to feel convincingly real

This lets us count Nintendo Virtual Boy, any Oculus product, as well as a whole range of other digital devices as VR.

After barely finishing my bachelor’s, I’d go on for the next six years to study VR and watch it transform from academic to consumer technology (again).

The Dog and Pony Show

In 2010, Jeremy Bailenson hired me to manage Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. I suspect it was because I had experience with Vizard from my UCSB days, and that he and Jim Bloscovich were close colleagues writing a book together. The lab at the time looked a lot like other university VR labs did, ReCVEB included, featuring a few drab windowless rooms with lots of wires and duct tape.

As part of his tenure offer, Bailenson negotiated a few million dollars from Stanford to build a more state-of-the-art laboratory space. Most of the money went to the architecture firm Kornberg Associates as well as the contractors to build the space. I project managed all of the hardware installations, learning everything from server racks to electrical diagrams to higher-order ambisonics (it’s as confusing at it sounds). We mostly just spent a lot of time on granite counter-tops, and what goes wrong with their sealing.

Bailenson’s vision for a more attractive demo space to showcase VR to visitors played a key part in its current resurgence. With VHIL up and running, using the best systems available in 2011, we went on an outreach blitz. With the undergraduate Joshua Bostick at my side, we toured thousands of people through the space over the next few years. I built a reservation system to entirely open VR to the public, something no other academic lab had attempted, not even USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

I absolutely loved outreach. Bringing in diverse groups of people, talking about VR, and then showing them it was incredibly rewarding. Especially a support group of elderly local widowers, who I watched flirt with each other while their minds spun around the technology’s leap from science fiction to reality.

We toured more high-profile visitors, too. Like Wired founder Kevin Kelly, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and Prince of Spain Felipe VI. The Huffington Post wrote in 2013 after a visit to us, “And one thing is absolutely clear, Virtual Reality at this level isn’t going to stay in the labs much longer.” They even accurately captured my extreme anxiety in someone breaking our sole $45k headset every time somebody wore one.


A former Navy SEAL once shook my hand on his way out and thanked me for the Dog and Pony Show. At the time, I didn’t think of VR as a charisma machine. I didn’t have the perspective yet to wonder if that in all these tours, that our promise of a better humanity through VR was indeed confirming that it would eventually fail. The bounce house of VR was too fun, bringing people in and watching them leave exhilarated. Bailenson wrote another book that captures this weird time in deeper detail.

But no show was more important than the one that happened in 2014, when we got an email from Mark Zuckerberg.

The Room Where it Happened

When I met Mark Zuckerberg, he stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Mark,” which felt like an impressively polished move. He was shorter than I expected, as famous people sometimes are. He was accompanied by Cory Ondrejka, co-founder of Second Life and current VP of Engineering at Facebook.

Bailenson and our staff were stressing about the visit for a while. Zuckerberg’s personal security detail already did a prior walk-through of the space. I’m not sure what they were looking for, but I do remember a bodyguard counting the number of exits (we had two).

The tour went as they usually do. A playlist of files showing different worlds and research studies. We made visitors walk a plank, fly through a city, chop down a tree, and look at themselves in a virtual mirror. The tracking system was more jittery than usual, despite my extra calibration efforts. Infrared (IR) tracking, the way we did it then, sucked because of reflections. We used security cameras with IR filters that looked for IR lights, but sometimes those lights reflected off shiny things like watches or clothing. We couldn’t always fully predict how the system would perform. Today, it was not performing well.

In the demo room, Bailenson performed his most charismatic pitch, yet. I sat on the other side of the glass, at the keyboard, pulling the strings at his command. This Wizard of Oz system let us control the pace of action in demos and tours, as opposed to giving the visitor full control of their virtual world.

In this way, for a brief moment with Zuckerberg immersed in our gear, I realized my keyboard could mediate his brain. Like the rocks and spiders back at UCSB, my actions could equally make him feel threatened or elated. I could manipulate Zuckerberg’s senses, and his brain would have to work hard to convince himself it wasn’t real. Sometimes this is called the reverse suspension of disbelief. Kind of like that moment in a movie theater where you sit down and say to your brain: “I know this isn’t real, but I’m ready to be in the narrative.” VR is the opposite of that.

I was wielding a charismatic machine, and I hated the way it felt. Who was I to push the buttons of someone else’s brain?

Soon after their visit, Facebook purchased the hardware startup Oculus VR for $2.3 billion dollars, with Ondrejka leading the acquisition. In retrospect, Zuckerberg might have only visited us to do diligence that there wasn’t better VR out there than what Oculus was building at their office in Irvine.

There really wasn’t, we had an early prototype (the DK1) in our hands and it was impressively comfortable. Their next prototype (the DK2) made a few giant leaps. One was the hardware, which used a high refresh rate (75fps) with low-persistence, which means it would turn off pixels to eliminate motion blur. Another was the software, which used something called asynchronous time warp to eliminate junk tracking data and render images more optimally to the display. Mobile computing made all of the pieces cheaper, and took away the insane leverage and markup current VR manufacturers like NVIS had over the market. VR now could cost $300, not $45,000. Facebook made a hardware investment that had consumer reach.

More importantly though, I wondered if Zuckerberg bought VR to be his own charisma machine. It seemed likely. What’s cooler than Facebook in two dimensions? Three.

Religion on Contact

In the way a bounce house feels exhausting hours in, having your perceptions constantly mediated is only appealing for a select few. If cognitive load didn’t matter in entertainment, the video game market would be much bigger. Instead, we learned that most people want to watch other people play video games.

Former Oculus CTO John Carmack once described VR as “religion on contact” and I can’t imagine anything more dangerous. The internet has already proved itself an absolute mess the last few years. What happens when it becomes more persuasive?

Facebook has lately used the technology as a recruiting tool, indoctrinating executives to its revolution using the Oculus Quest. This is where charismatic machines show their largest edge, in building a fleet of evangelists to believe the same. It’s not unlike how the Trump administration has handled its recruitment and silence of non-believers. Or how Holmes built her inner circle at Theranos.

In this way, VR is overly charismatic. It will fail because there will be a rising voice of opposition that reject its persuasiveness. Already, they’re flagging the ways that the technology collects data by a company that really hasn’t deserved to collect it. What happens when that data collected is more telling than keystrokes, like with tracked movement or physiological data? Can we protect it like Bailenson suggests?

Facial recognition is rightly already up against this as its own dangerous charisma machine. Will VR be next?

Next up, in Part 2, I’ll explain how charismatic and conflicting ideologies translate to VR content creation. I’ll talk about my time building STRIVR out of a Menlo Park townhome and directing commercials for Visa.

Please subscribe if you’re enjoying the adventure and would like to read Part 2 fresh off the digital press. See you then!


Special thanks to Jordan Kutzer and Piera Von Glahn for early edits of this post!

The views represented above are my own, not of my company Blue Trot Group or any of its partners, affiliates, or clients.

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