March 30, 2013
Everything New Is Terrible
I’m not comfortable about saying it, but I think innovation, at least in the consumer electronic space, is dead. This is by no means a bad thing. We live in a time where the cameras in our smartphones are so good, they almost mock older technology by turning great photos into distorted and washed out shots.
How very smug.
Yet two pieces of “new” technology have the blogs a’buzzing, and I can’t figure out why. As a child of the 90s, I distinctly remember the days of the very first virtual reality (VR) video games and the Nintendo Virtual Boy headset. The basic idea of virtual reality had almost been achieved with this headset, but only in its most elementary form.
However, the fact that the screen only displayed red images, and the fact that there were so few games that were compatible with the thing, didn’t help the VB’s long-term sales. Nintendo’s foray into VR ultimately, and quickly, became a huge failure.
The idea of virtual reality has been kept alive in some small sectors of the Internet, but has yet to completely capture any significant amount of attention from the general public. Even 3D technology, which is sort of an entry-level to VR, has failed to really take off the way some had predicted.
Beating A Dead Horse
Because, you know, it wouldn’t be 2013 without a Kickstarter campaign. This is a point I’ll return to in a moment.
In all fairness, the Oculus Rift looks pretty cool.
That is, if you’re into isolating yourself from reality and immersing yourself in a stream of digital images delivered to your retinas via a completely closed-off pair of snow goggles.
It’s a sentiment shared in an uncomfortable Jimmy Fallon segment featuring the show’s host and Mr. Verge himself, Joshua Topolsky. After strapping the large, black goggles on Fallon’s head, Topolsky directs him to “walk” over to a group of digital armored knights and look down, tricking Fallon into looking at one of the characters’ crotch.
This is how far we’ve come, people.
The Oculus Rift is one more in a growing line of Kickstarter successes, raising just over $2.4 million in one month. The company is preparing to send out development units, which are even bulkier and have lower resolution screens, to eager game developers in May.
Having never strapped on a pair of these goggles, I can only say that at their most basic level, they appear to be an extremely improved version of the Virtual Boy. In other words, it’s just a display placed really close to your eyeballs that is also capable of telling which way you’re looking.
But is this what we’ve come up with? With all we’re capable of doing (DARPA has land speed record setting robots, be tee dubs), people really want to improve the Virtual Boy, to strap on clunky glasses and disappear from the world?
I’m no gamer, but I prefer a stiff drink when I want to forget the world for an hour or two.
Then there’s the issue of the smartwatch.
It’s Only Got One Job To Do
Having little to do with the 90s, outside of a one-off film, Dick Tracy fever was alive and well at the turn of the decade. This brought about a desire to have a smart watch, which can do nearly anything a normal watch couldn’t. (I suppose I could also blame the recent smartwatch craze on the popularity of Inspector Gadget in the 80s.)
Most companies dropped their calculator watches (cutting edge tech at the time) once they realized that they could not only do better, but that it’s incredibly hard to perform calculations on such a tiny form factor.
Ah, but wait! Apparently we want to return to this world. We want to speak to our watches, we want to read email previews and text messages on our wrists. Not full emails, mind you, just the preview. This means that at some point, you’ll likely have to pull your phone out of your pocket to interact with the email, a task the smartwatch was supposed to completely replace.
These watches are given one task and they manage to bungle it up by design.
Judging the response from yet another Kickstarter campaign and the amount of rumors about similar products from Tech Titans Apple, Google and Samsung, the general public has finally decided that they really do want a smartwatch. It’s an interesting and new twist. For a while it looked as if we wanted our smartphones to replace our computers. Then, we asked our tablets to replace our computers and asked our phones to act as a camera/remote/general hub of our digital lifestyle. And now, we want a watch to control our smartphones.
VR Goggles, Smartwatches, and Veronica Mars
One such smartwatch, the Pebble, earned a shocking $10 million in their Kickstarter campaign. They were only asking for $100,000.
Clearly, people want a smartwatch, no?
And if we’re basing general public interest on Kickstarter campaigns, it would seem as if we all want smartwatches, VR goggles, and a Veronica Mars movie.
But is this correct?
Those who have played with the Oculus Rift have mostly positive things to say about it, and the first Pebble watch owners seem mostly pleased with their wrist candy.
Here’s the rub with Kickstarter; you’re asked to buy into a product that doesn’t always exist. Sure, they’ve prototypes, hopes and dreams, but when it comes down to it, they haven’t been able to make the product on their own or find funding through the traditional channels.
Second, these informal investors are funding a project that they can’t see. They’ve got a brief movie and a description to be persuaded.
On the screen, the Pebble watch looks really cool, and, of course, I’m going to buy an Apple-branded watch, if such a thing ever exists.
Yet, I have to wonder how successful Pebble or Oculus Rift would have been if people were able to use the thing in person before funding the campaign. The wow factor for both devices is still there, of course. It’s cool to see your emails flash on your wrist or be ensconced in a fake and digital world.
But there’s something that happens in most sane people’s brains when they are deciding to buy a new product.
Somewhere in between the demo and the time it takes to hand over their card, this person has to ask themselves, “But will I ever use this thing?”
This brings me to my opening statement: Innovation is dead. We’re not making things we need or things that can really improve our lives and productivity (save the emerging 3D printing industry).
We’re vamping on ideas we had decades ago with today’s vastly improved technology tagging along.
The Oculus Rift is by far and away a superior product to any preceding VR headset, but it’s still just a VR headset.
The Pebble watch exceeds those old Casios in every area, yet in the end, they’re mostly the same thing.
And to be fair, one of the last truly innovative products, the iPad, is essentially the same thing as those old Windows tablets, which utterly and thoroughly sucked.
I’m all for improvement, but I’m just waiting to be wowed. So far these “remix products” have yet to do that for me.
Image Credit: Oculus VR