VR promised us the future. Too bad we’re stuck in the present


By Ian Sherr

Are you going to buy a virtual reality headset?

Seriously. Are you?

I’m not the only one who wants to know. The VR industry is having an awkward moment. Though headset makers have spent years and billions of dollars promising world-changing technology, relatively few of us have actually lined up to buy them.

That sales problem is likely to be among the things discussed at the fourth annual conference for one of the darlings of VR, Oculus, which Facebookbought three years ago for as much as $3 billion. More than 2,500 app and game makers are expected to attend its annual developers conference, called Oculus Connect, starting Wednesday in San Jose, California.

Facebook’s Oculus VR division promises discussions on how health care, movies and video games are adapting to this still nascent technology. One panel will explore how the disability community can benefit from VR gear and presentations.

The talk underscores the potential of VR. Yes, the high-end headsets are bulky and need special setup and long thick cables tethered to big PCs. They’re expensive too, with Oculus’ Rift costing $499 and requiring a $500 PC before you can get set up. But after you put on those VR goggles — basically strapping a screen inches from your eyes — your brain can be tricked into believing you’ve been transported to whatever computer-generated world you want.

You could be in the middle of a massive space battle or dive to the bottom of a shipwreck and come face to face with a blue whale. Or you could watch cartoon bunnies hack your brain. Maybe you want to meet people from around the world and chat while hanging out on a idyllic beach.

For some people, VR is more than that. Rae O’Neil, a 34-year-old IT worker from Nova Scotia, had always been fascinated with VR. But it was her grandfather’s reaction to the Rift that made its promise clear.

In his 80s and disabled after losing a leg a few years prior, he put on the headset and began using an app called Blue Marble, which lets you float in space, looking at planets while music plays in the background.

“He felt like he was actually in space,” she recalled. It brought a tear to her grandfather’s eye.

Those kind of otherworldly experiences helped convince Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to buy Oculus after trying a prototype of the headset back in 2014.

“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction,” Zuckerberg wrote on his social network after buying the startup. Back then, he said, VR had the potential to remake everything from education to medicine to communications, just like the phone and computer had done in their day. “The future is coming.”

It still is.

From hype to trough

Oculus’ flagship Rift headset hit store shelves in March 2016, with so much hype leading up to the launch that even then-President Barack Obama gave it a whirl as part of a virtual tour of the White House.

But a lot of people still haven’t bought in.

Facebook’s been tight-lipped about shipments, but several people familiar with Oculus said that fewer than a quarter million Rift headsets were sold during their first year on the market. Facebook declined to comment on Rift sales.

But the company signaled its frustration with the anemic interest when it pulled Rift demo stations from hundreds of Best Buy stores around the country in February.

Then, the social media giant cut the headset’s price. Twice. It was being sold for $400, a third less than its original price, for six weeks over the summer before jumping back up to $499.

The company’s chief competitors, Sony and HTC, followed suit. The PlayStation VR dropped to $400 from $500, and the Vive dropped to $599 from $799 all in the past three months.

The price cuts were enough to juice demand for Oculus, two people familiar with the company said. Though current total tallies couldn’t be learned, at least a million units are estimated to have been sold.

Sony, by comparison, says it sold more than a million units of the PlayStation VR as of June, just eight months after going on sale. HTC didn’t respond to a request for sales data.

The question of demand is causing some VR game and app developers to worry about their future.

“It’s not happy sunshine and rainbows,” said James Iliff, co-founder and creative chief at VR game maker Survios, which made early hit shooters Zombies on the Holodeck and Raw Data, one of the first VR games to rack up $1 million in sales. “We are very much in a trough of disillusionment.”

That “trough of disillusionment” comes from the “Hype Cycle,” a theorypopularized by research firm Gartner and whose stages have become mantra in Silicon Valley. The goal of the Hype Cycle is to chart the expectations and emotions around products as they’re introduced, innovated upon and eventually adopted — or not.

In the beginning, there’s the “Innovation Trigger,” when new tech is introduced. Then hype and excitement begin to build until the new thing eventually hits the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” That’s followed by the crash into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” (Gartner says VR is nearly out of that stage and headed into the “Slope of Enlightenment,” just before mass adoption.)

Iliff and his co-founders worked on early VR research before Oculus was founded. He felt expectations were getting too high, particularly in the media, and expected a backlash of sorts. So, he’s prepared.

This month, for example, Survios made Raw Data more widely available for Oculus, Vive and PlayStation VR. Survios is also looking beyond VR for customers, redesigning Raw Data to work in arcades as well.

“The game industry is hard, it is a tough industry, and that is not going away,” he said. “That’s the same for VR.”

Digital detoxing is a thing. Really


By Ian Sherr

What started with my wife and me looking for an escape from digital overload has completely changed the way we take vacations.

I’d been pulling all-nighters. Endless calls with my colleagues made me late for dinners with friends, tied me to my phone nearly all hours of the day and left me frazzled.

Then I read a survey by American Express that floored me: Nearly 80 percent of vacationers expected to remain connected to the net for some or all of their vacation. More than two-thirds of them said they’d be checking their work email.

That inspired us to seek out our first disconnected vacation. We wanted to find a place that was remote enough that even the vast wireless networks that deliver YouTube videos, Facebook posts and work emails to our handheld gadgets couldn’t find us. A place without Wi-Fi or cellular.

We found it in Jenner, California, a slow-going village (population 136, according to the last US Census) on the California coast, about two hours north of San Francisco. It has a coffee shop, a gas station, a couple of restaurants and a bar. And practically no cell service.

It was heavenly.

Maldives, little island resorts

It’s almost impossible to detach ourselves from the digital world these days. We check our phones 47 times a day, on average. Almost half of us check our phone at least once in the middle of the night, says consulting firm Deloitte, and nearly two-thirds of us reach for our phones within 15 minutes of waking up. And an astounding number of us say Wi-Fi is more important than sex, chocolate or alcohol.

It’s why off-the-grid vacations are becoming a thing, whether to remote locales in places like Africa and Asia (Gobi Desert, anyone?) or to spas that combine luxe accommodations with safes to lock away your gadgets. There’s also a growing number of “digital detox” programs just to get you to turn off your devices for a while.

“There is this awareness of, ‘I know I need to cut back, but what do I do?’ ” says Sylvia Hart Frejd, founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Wellness at Liberty University, which helps students learn about the dangers of digital saturation. “Technology is rewiring our brains for distraction and, in turn, addiction.”

Dropbox’s quest to win your heart, and Wall Street’s too


By Ian Sherr

What do you do when Steve Jobs says you’re destined to fail?

That’s what Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston had to answer after meeting Apple‘s co-founder seven years ago.

Houston’s startup made waves when he unveiled his storage service in 2008, offering a dead-simple way to upload and save your files in the cloud and then synchronize them between your computers. At 27, he was talking to the most influential name in tech — and his own personal hero.

“It was an interesting conversation because he said he liked our products,” Houston (pronounced “how-stun”) later recounted to Forbes. “I can’t think of much higher praise than that.”

But Apple’s co-founder wasn’t convinced Dropbox was destined for success. Jobs wanted to buy the company, likely to integrate it with Apple’s own forthcoming file-syncing service.

Jobs declared Dropbox to be a “feature, not a product.” Or, put another way, Jobs believed Dropbox didn’t have a future as a standalone company. Houston said no thanks.

Since then, Houston and his team have been trying to prove Jobs wrong.

They’ve added more than a dozen features, including specialized photo storage and document editing. They’ve made it so apps can connect with Dropbox to store and sync files across devices. And they’ve worked to become even more attractive to businesses by making it easier for teams of people to share files.

So far, Dropbox has convinced more than 500 million people and 200,000 businesses to sign up. The question is, how many people are paying for its service? A privately held company, Dropbox won’t say how many people pay. And unless it tells us, it’s nearly impossible to know.

Dropbox, like most web companies, gives away a limited free version of its service when you just sign up. Over time, the company hopes you’ll come to rely on its offerings, at which point you may decide to pay more (starting at $10 per month for individuals and $25 per person per month for teams) to store additional files.

Even so, all those people using Dropbox helped turn it into one of the first and largest Silicon Valley unicorns, or companies valued at more than $1 billion — on paper, at least. For Dropbox, that happened in 2011, when investors valued it at $4 billion, according to CrunchBase.

Dropbox seemed on its way to becoming one of the great tech success stories, complete with a future that included a high-profile initial public offering beneath the ringing bell of Wall Street.

“They had the market cornered,” said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner.

But it hasn’t happened. All those years after meeting Jobs, Dropbox is still a private company. Its value, which zoomed up to $10 billion in 2014, hasn’t changed. Bloomberg reported in August that Dropbox’s financials may not justify that value when the company eventually begins selling public shares, something that could happen in the not-too-distant future. According to Bloomberg, Houston was preparing to file paperwork to begin that process.

Dropbox said in January that it’s on track to tally $1 billion in sales this year, more than the nearly $400 million its already-public competitor Box tallied last year.

Houston, now 34, hopes that data point, among others, will make Dropbox a compelling buy for Wall Street. “Warren Buffett better be able to look at our business and say, ‘This lemonade stand makes money,'” Houston told Bloomberg.

As for getting you and me to use Dropbox and pay for it? Houston has a plan for that, sort of. After years of working to come up with new and innovative ideas, Dropbox is now trying something else: an artsy rebranding campaign.

Starting Tuesday the San Francisco company freshened its look with new colors, different fonts and a flattened version of its storage box-like logo. Ultimately, the company is hoping to help remind people there’s more to it than the free syncing service they signed up for and maybe rely on for work. It’s also to remind them that Dropbox is more than just an always-there “feature,” as Jobs put it so dismissively.

Dropbox now wants to be known as a place for creativity as well. Whether it will or not remains to be seen.

Twitter, what the hell with all the harassment?


By Ian Sherr

Hey @jack. Can we talk?

This past weekend was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, when we ask forgiveness for our transgressions and forgive others for theirs.

But this year, I was having an awfully hard time with Twitter.

So I decided to write this open letter to you, Jack Dorsey. I figure Twitter’s CEO and co-founder would be a good place to start.

You’ve been making moves lately that just don’t make sense, and it’s becoming a problem.

I’m not talking about questions of how you’ll turn a profit or convince more people to join today’s 328 million tweeters. And I’m certainly not worried how you’ll stay relevant because, thanks to President Donald Trump, Twitter has that written all over it every day and in headlines all around the world.

I’m talking about decisions that undermine your integrity and ignore what actually matters.

Let’s be frank: You need to deal with harassment. The pervasive, nonstop, everyday, all-encompassing harassment some people have been subjected to on your platform. It’s the hate campaigns, the racism, the intimidation, the deadly assault and the Russian interference in the US election. All of it.

Reality is coming down hard on social networking, and no one seems more publicly oblivious than you.

When Twitter met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week, those problems were on full display — though, not to the rest of us, since testimony was behind closed doors.

One senator, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, said the meeting was “deeply disappointing” and “showed [an] enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again begs many more questions than they offered.”


Since you rarely say much about harassment, and the company declined to make you available for an interview, I’m going to go ahead and ask my seven questions here instead.