Thought Bubble: Virtual Reality Has a Public Relations Problem

Hey, tech people? Techies? Technophiles? Can we talk for a minute? I know Virtual Reality is cool and all, but you really need to do something about your attitude.

That’s become abundantly clear in the past week now that the Oculus Rift is finally available for pre-order. The VR headset will ship in March and hit retail in April, which means that Virtual Reality is on the verge of becoming actual reality for everyday consumers. That’s a big deal. VR opens entirely new doors for creative expression, and people should be excited about the possibilities.

Unfortunately, that enthusiasm is hardly universal. Reactions have generally fallen into one of two camps, with some people eagerly awaiting the launch and others balking at the robust $599 price point. Both sides make valid arguments, but the intensity of the debate is ultimately more telling than the debate itself, which is only nominally about VR. Virtual Reality doesn’t have a tech problem. It has a PR problem, one that should make us rethink the way we talk about technology.

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It’s all a matter of perception. VR true believers know that the Oculus Rift works, and they assume that that’s the end of the discussion. It’s fact, a tangible piece of evidence that overrides any opposition. However, anyone following politics knows that facts do not always win the day, and in any case the quality of the Oculus Rift is not what’s in dispute. Rather, the naysayers are trying to communicate doubts about the need for Virtual Reality as it relates to their day to day lives. Those lived experiences are equally grounded in fact and observation because people are smart enough to know what items they do and do not use on a daily basis.

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Many in the tech sphere have wholly disregarded those perspectives. While $600 is not that far off from other new tech gadgets, it is steep enough to make price a barrier to entry (here in Canada the final tag is likely over $900 given the current exchange rate). Yes, the cost will come down and VR will become more affordable once competitors enter the market. But the fact remains that Virtual Reality is not widely available and is therefore a theoretical concept for most of the population.

That’s also pretty noteworthy. Unlike cell phones, the utility of VR is not immediately obvious, and it’s not going to integrate seamlessly into people’s professional and social lives. Sure, the experiences it offers are unique, but the current perception is that the Oculus Rift is a luxury item designed primarily for entertainment. Considering that most of the early offerings are games or movies, that will continue to be true for a while.

The problem is that too many of VR’s greatest advocates have adopted a seeing-is-believing approach to salesmanship and have absolved themselves of any responsibility for explaining why people should care about VR. They’re so blindly confident in the hardware that they’re oblivious to the possibility that other people have different experiences with VR, conveniently forgetting that there are still millions of people who have never seen a headset and would have even less use for one if they did.

The result is that some of the people most aggressively selling VR are the last people who should be selling VR because they have no regard for the financial or practical concerns of the broader public they’re trying to sell to. The pitch is essentially, “You’re a bunch of ignorant neanderthals, now shut up and spend money because it’s the future.” Any counterarguments are dismissed out of hand because – again – seeing is believing, moving the VR discussion into such patronizing territory that it makes people less likely to want to try it.

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That’s really what the backlash is about. The Oculus Rift is more affordable than many high tech gizmos, but the $600 is irrelevant. Listening to pushers talk about VR is like listening to Wall Street executives talk about their yachts. How does it relate to other people’s lives?

More to the point, people resent being told that their opinions have no merit simply because they don’t have access to the latest tech. It’s the worst kind of Silicon Valley elitism, an arrogance that ignores common concerns that it chooses not to see, and at this point it’s creating an active distaste for what should be groundbreaking technology.

Exciting toys do not negate legitimate questions about accessibility and culture. It’s not so much that people want VR to fail. They’re just sick of being told that a thing they’ve never seen is going to completely reshape their worldview, especially when the people saying it are too lazy to explain how that’s going to happen. Too many technophiles are far too condescending towards those who have less tech, and that’s shitty behavior that punishes people for not knowing something they’ve never had the opportunity to learn.

Despite the adage, few things sell themselves, and the onus is never on those who are expected to hand over cash. VR is no exception. While complaints about motion sickness may be outdated, they’re perfectly understandable given the relative unavailability of the hardware. Getting beyond that requires outreach and education, and even then, the reaction will not be uniform. Many people won’t see what all the fuss is about and will still decide that VR is something they can do without because different people have different needs from their technology.

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In order for it to become the revolution that its champions are peddling, Virtual Reality will require the same diplomatic marketing touch that is used to sell every other product on the planet. It’s impossible to divorce technology from the culture of the people that use it, and it also takes considerable effort to make sure that technology and people remain compatible. The sooner the VR disciples realize that, the easier it will be for them to share their enthusiasm with the rest of us.

 

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