The VR-Smartwatch Continuum

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

It always sounds a bit New Age, but most socio-marketing thinking about all things digital tends to conclude that everything is going atomic. You might call it tribalism, niches, the Long Tail or anything like that, but all spring from the same source: given choices the market takes choices. Given the opportunity to branch away from the slopstream of controlled markets, that’s what the market tends to do. By this we generally mean that digital rewards efficiency, like a better taxi service, a better shopping service, a better way to get everything you’ve ever wanted delivered to your door.

But we also tend to equate atomization to rewarding niches and say that going digital represents some fundamental disruption of monocultural user taste. Now you can satisfy your urge to listen to obscure Cuban Jazz because it’s out there somewhere, and by extrapolation so can everyone. This is sort of true but not as true as some would wish. The Cuban Jazz may indeed be out there (on Spotify or Pandora perhaps) but most of it remains unlistened-to. Users may have all the choices, but still tend to favor number 1 over number 11,111. This may be for social reasons (not wanting to be left out) or simple laziness (not wanting to go digging through multiple pages just to find the thing you want) but it’s fact.

Indeed as the digital realm has evolved it has often led to mono-networks, like the App Store, Netflix, Amazon, Google, Steam or Facebook. In theory the App Store is democratized in favor of many developers. In practice it’s top heavy. Same for Netflix, same for YouTube, same for trending posts on social networks. It’s easier to go with the default search engine that everyone says is good rather than strike out and find out what DuckDuckGo is. (And if anything this seems to be even more the case in Asia where some truly colossal companies pretty much are the Internet for end users). The long tail may exist, but it’s not as fat as was hoped.

But neither Chris Anderson or Anita Elberse are right. Digital rewards some disaggregation and divergence, but both often simply to form new aggregation and convergence points. The determining factor of the degree of monoculturation seems to be whether the target audience is technically literate or not, and often the assumption that the audience will grow more so over time is unfounded. Digital divergence is also pretty bad at surfacing new ideas. In every instance of a new platform (such as Periscope, say) it automatically gets put to old uses (selfies, cats, yada yada). The niches that the digital realm surfaces are often driven by a sense of cause, but that cause often pre-exists its digital kick.

So this is why sometimes the new doesn’t work. And sometimes why it does. This is why sometimes the revamped old doesn’t work. And sometimes why it does. Digital stuff seems to follow the adage that it’s better to tell new stories in an old way or old stories in a new way. But not new in a new way or old in an old. New media is best for retelling old tales while old media is best for telling new tales. Kickstarter for re-vamping old tech obsessions, television for Game of Thrones.

So let’s apply that thinking to VR and smart watches, and ask whether either has a hope in hell of succeeding. Consider them as two points at either end of a continuum of screen size, of accessibility, of commitment. One is ambient, all the time, incidental. The other is purposeful, a statement of saying I will now put on this technowizardry and go do wondrous things. One is technically fearsome, something that has all the outward appearance of needing to buy into a cult. The other is social, quirky, a talking point for a month but also likely faddish. And between those two points? Mobiles, computers, consoles and televisions. The mainstream “old way” platforms that devotees of either end would like to see disrupted. But will they be? Doubtful.

VR isn’t some scrappy startup scene like the Homebrew Computer Club. It’s a playground of febrile corporate vision projects of the kind that struggle to express what their market, product, purpose or business plan really is. Maybe VR seems awesome in demo, but nobody nowhere knows what it’s supposed to be for. This means VR needs a tribe to sustain it for the 1, 2, 4, 8 or 16 years it’ll take to become a thing. And so the question is whether the VR tribe is large enough. And if not, whether those outside the tribe can really be convinced to strap on the goggles. There are no direct analogies to answer that question, but plenty of negative pointers. One example is the general shape of the peripherals (fancy joysticks etc) business. If VR follows the peripheral-market model it’ll convert maybe 1 in 10 of existing users on platforms to its cause, that probably equates to a too-small audience. Another example is the user-repellence issue. VR, much like 3DTV and movies, makes a non-zero amount of users feel nauseous when they try it. That’s kind of a turn-off, and its solutions are increasingly amusing.

Smartwatches are a completely different story. With smartwatches the question isn’t about market-size feasibility so much as stuckishness (Grammarians: I apologize unreservedly). Consider that if you buy a smartwatch for the same price that you’d buy a tricked out computer, you really won’t want to upgrade it and thus invalidate your expensive purchase. Like, maybe not ever. Thus smartwatches might get stuck with a very slow upgrade cycle, leading to a lack of interest for new shiny apps after only a short while, and a niche that doesn’t care that much to talk about its new devices for long. This doesn’t offer developers that much scope to do much with smartwatches long-term.

This is why I’m tending to be wary of both VR and smartwatches, and any claim that either represents the future. They may represent either end of a spectrum, but they represent extremes. Much as Google Glass represented an extreme or 3DTV represented an extreme they’ll have their devotees. But I have a hard time seeing either as anything other than a niche business – and each a niche business with structural issues. Rather than this being a year of tiny screens or giant eye-wrapping immersion, maybe this is a year when we’ll look at what we already have and figure out what more they can do. Maybe this is a time to tell new stories in old ways.