A Call for Shepherds in the Virtual Reality Community
This is the third and final article (in a series) on the issues that face the virtual reality community as it finally enters a period of rapid and sustained growth. If you need additional context, please begin with the first article in the series, “Before the Eternal September of Virtual Reality“.
You are a developer, right?
That’s the impression that many of you gave Oculus when you agreed that you were purchasing a product that was intended for developers. If that is actually not the case, we’d like for you to stick around.
Given the amount of time that the development kits have been available, and the introduction of other “innovator” products (like Cardboard and Gear VR), I think that it is a safe bet that software developers are already a small minority in the VR community.
This time around, nobody is holding your order hostage until you click the checkbox with the correct answer. Do you mind giving this unscientific poll a quick response?
Only a year ago, we were using the original Oculus Rift Developer’s Kit (DK1). The community could be an unfriendly place for non-developers. Do you know how we tended to respond to those who were having problems finding good games and getting them to work? Repeat the mantra from the caption below.
The image above is clearly a fake, as is the quote, but the sentiment was (and to some degree, still is) true. Even today, the Oculus Rift is intended for developers, and it works well for Oculus not to be sandbagged with end-user support at this time.
Embracing The Sheep (Increasing Scale)
After the release of the second Development Kit, Oculus loosened up a bit, and thankfully, so has the community. We need to start ramping up to support everyday users.
It is true that we probably shouldn’t be encouraging everyday users to purchase an Oculus Rift (even more so with its replacement on the horizon). But we should use this limited window of opportunity to capture the kinds of questions and issues that new users have, and then to figure out what we can do to help them be more successful, and in greater numbers.
As many of you are aware, we have a unique situation here. Valve/HTC has given a 2015 release date for the Vive, and Oculus has not revised their guidance for a 2015 consumer launch. We are expecting an overwhelming flood of users to begin later this year.
They’re coming. They’re coming in extremely large numbers, and they’re coming all at once. We need to figure out how we’re going to give them the information they need, and in a way that they can use. We need to figure it out now — not after they’re already here.
An unsubstantiated rumor in our community has been that Oculus might soft-launch the consumer version of their headset to help shake out some of the early issues. Even then, we should already be in a position where we’re ready to capture issues and effectively communicate information to new users. We’re not there. We aren’t even ready to take advantage of a soft launch.
We are not ready for a rapid increase in scale.
Embracing Different Kinds of Sheep (Increasing Scope)
As we scale up, other uses and needs within the VR community will become more apparent. Even today, we have some needs which are poorly met, and other needs which go completely unmet.
When somebody came to our community and asked for help in creating a college curriculum around VR development, why weren’t we able to help? Why couldn’t we at least connect them with others who have similar interests?
When people ask us how companies will use VR outside of the home, why are most of us able to suggest little more than VR arcades and VR motion rides? What can we tell people about the world of VR outside of mobile devices, PCs, and consoles? What can we learn about this topic for ourselves?
When yet another student is looking to write a pro-and-con paper on the commercial success or the moral issues of virtual reality, do we rehash the same arguments again and again? How many times do we want to participate in a post with the latest off-the-cuff arguments? Are we best serving students by offering the freshest opinions, or should we be pointing them to the top arguments that we’ve collected over time?
Have we even identified the spectrum of needs today in the VR community? Do we understand all the different needs and uses that will be out there once VR gets its first major commercial push?
It would be nice to say, “this is a problem for Oculus” (or Valve, or anyone else) and leave it at that. Unfortunately, it isn’t true, and we shouldn’t expect them to solve it for us; this is our problem and they will arrive at our doorstep. We have to own this problem, regardless of what the major VR companies do.
A Recognition of Existing Shepherds
Today, we have some individual contributors who have stepped forward and are doing a great job. (You know who you are!) Bloggers, reviewers, podcasters, streamers, and more. We also have real-world and virtual-world event organizers. Keep at it!
At the same time, they need to be mindful that their audience is about to change (and hopefully grow wildly in the process). Are you going to keep with your current audience, or change to meet the needs of a fresh group of faces? Perhaps you can do both?
If you’ve considered joining the ranks of these shepherds, there isn’t going to be a better time to jump in than right now. If you can do it now and establish yourself, it should only get better once consumer VR takes off.
A Call for New Types of Shepherds
So you’re not a software developer? That’s great!
Where in our community are the altruistic researchers and documenters? Is someone sitting on a cache of information that they’d like to share, but need some help putting it together?
We need people who can capture the forum-based knowledge of our group and distil it into discrete chunks of information. Is anyone interested in writing a comprehensive timeline of consumer VR? How about digging through forum posts just to identify great topics for others to use?
Where are the builders of wikis and other public resources? I see just one wiki that isn’t vendor specific… who owns it? Unfortunately, it is mostly an aggregation of links (new and historical) and it doesn’t speak to a wide audience. We’re missing a big opportunity here.
A wiki makes for a really obvious group collaboration with lots of public benefit, but I’d hate for us to fixate on that one solution and miss out on other ways that we can collaborate. What are some of the other ideas out there?
Perhaps something that connects everyday people who have niche interests (remember that lone educator who had questions)? Or how about a database of public VR projects, needs, and resources? Use these ideas. Come up with more!
Where are the organizers? We need people who can identify and champion new public projects and rally the right people to get them done. We need people (or software) to connect needs with resources. We need people who can organize information to help us understand what needs are out there.
There are more ways that you can contribute to the VR community than designing software and writing code. Even collecting and categorizing questions about VR is extremely useful. What are your talents?
Summary (A Call to Action)
We are not prepared to support our own community under the massive increase in scale which is sure to come. We are not prepared to support our own community under the increased scope of interests that come with scale.
We can go with inertia and do nothing. We can make excuses of why we or others shouldn’t do anything. We can can continue to take action as individuals, and we can also start to work together in groups. However we choose to go about it, we need to face these problems and take action.
You may not be a software developer, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t develop something that will help the community. I know that there have been those who have felt shut out of our community, and there is no reason why it needs to be this way. We really do need different kinds of contributors in the VR community to make this work for everyone.
Even those people without any VR equipment can provide value by sharing their questions with us, critiquing our work, proofreading, illustrating, and more.
This call to action is overdue, but it isn’t too late. What are you interested in working on? Is this something you want to do on your own, or can others with the same or different skills work with you on it to make it better? What do you think that others should be working on? Can you help us identify some different types of sheep that will need special attention?
Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, please head over to one of the public VR forums and start coordinating. Let others know:
- What topics you are interested in.
- How you might be able to help someone else’s project.
- If you have a public project which needs resources. (Sell it!)
- Suggestions for projects that someone else might want to run with.
Stand up and let people know that you’re ready to contribute!
To all those who reviewed and advised on this article before publication, thank you.
It is my hope that those in the VR community who want to self-organize can take it from here. (I don’t want to be the guy who calls the community to action, only to funnel everyone into my own pet projects.)
If you see a major project where nobody else has stepped forward for the lead roll, and you can do the position justice, please consider volunteering in that capacity for the VR community. Rally others around your project!