TIME’s new cover: Virtual Reality. Why it’s about to change the world https://t.co/1nbXSsF36w
— TIME.com (@TIME) August 6, 2015
If you really want to piss off a techie today, bring up Time’s latest cover story on virtual reality. You would think technology enthusiasts would be happy to see virtual reality given a prime spot on the cover of one of America’s most respected news magazines. But then you may see the cover, which features Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey in what could only be described as sort of a (very unflattering) flying squats. The photo is so awkward that it’s spawned a whole slew of doctored pictures trying to explain that odd position, showing Luckey doing everything from riding dinosaurs to surfing. And even if you don’t want to judge a story by its cover, here are the first two paragraphs:
Palmer Luckey isn’t like other Silicon Valley nerds. He’s a nerd all right, but not the kind who went to a top-ranked university, wrote brilliant code or studied business plans. He’s cheery and talks in normal sentences that are easy to understand.
Ouch. Just, ouch.
It’s an understatement to say that it’s not a flattering description, either of Luckey or to the rest of the “Silicon Valley nerds” that article author Joel Klein takes pains to separate him from. (Oculus did not respond to a request for comment on reaction to the Time cover.) As far as back-handed compliments go, it’s a well-crafted one. You probably couldn’t have hit more accurately on the sore spots of the collective “nerd” ego if it had been crowd-sourced from 10,000 of the world’s meanest jocks. “Geek chic,” as a thing, is still pretty new and there’s a definitely a part of the nerd hindbrain that gets defensive about those old stereotypes — even if the smarty-pants kids are now the ones ruling the world.
So, even though the rest of the article is pretty supportive of virtual reality, you can probably understand why there’s so much anger out there.
The thing is, the oddly bullying tone aside, Time and Klein have hit on what is pretty much exactly virtual reality’s greatest problem — it looks goofy.
I love VR, but it’s really hard to describe its appeal to people who haven’t tried it. Once you try it out, it makes sense — the feeling of being transported somewhere else is pretty amazing. Even realizing that you can turn around and look behind you feels like an entirely new viewing experience. It’s even better being able to play a game with that much freedom. You immediately think of the possibilities for cross-global communication or — as Google has already tried — virtual field trips for kids to places around the world or across time.
But to “get” it, you have to try it. To try it you have to be convinced to do so. And when all you see is someone with a big set of goggles on their face, it’s difficult to see the technology as anything but isolating.
It’s the Segway all over again, or the Google “glasshole” problem, times fifty. In all likelihood, you won’t see people with virtual reality headsets walking down the street — because, you know, the people who do that will probably thin themselves out by way of open manhole covers. But it’s hard to shake dystopian images of a world where this sort of technology disconnects people rather than connects them.
No one wants to be the guy on the beach, oblivious to the world around him, his hands flopping in ways that only make sense in the world inside his head. Even, yes, if that guy sold his company to Facebook for $2 billion. That will be VR’s biggest problem breaking into the wider consumer market, no matter how cool us Kool-Aid drinkers tell the rest of the world it is.
As for Luckey, he seems to be enjoying the cover and all that it’s spawned — at least on social media, anyway:
@therealcliffyb @TIME I have always loved photoshoops. — Palmer Luckey (@PalmerLuckey) August 7, 2015
Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.