The reason that we’re not all wearing Google Glass today can be summed up by two fateful "WTF" moments.
The first was when technologist Robert Scoble wore it in the shower—proving, Vogue spreads aside, that it was as horrendously geeky as we’d all suspected. The second was when former New York Times tech writer Nick Bilton stood at a urinal next to a Glass wearer who, despite being friendly, may have been photographing the whole thing—demonstrating how imposing a camera on your face could feel to those around you.
Without those two moments? Who knows. Maybe Glass would have snuck through our cultural threshold as techno-chic, or as the perfect way to take photos of your kids. But history is history, and Glass flopped.
Now, after watching a new commercial by Samsung for a new app called Bedtime VR Stories, I wonder if VR is facing a WTF moment, too. Maybe even more of a WTF moment than Oculus founder Palmer Luckey showing up floating on the cover of Time, or Mark Zuckerberg casually strolling past an audience blinded by VR headsets. And one that bothers me more, because it doesn't just illustrate that people in VR look dorky or clueless. (Because we already knew that, right?)
On the surface, Samsung has produced a warm and fuzzy app that’s being developed to connect busy parents with their children. "Sharing a bedtime story is incredibly special," the description reads. "But longer working days and hectic schedules make this harder to do. At Samsung we believe that technology should bring us closer together. That's why we developed Bedtime VR Stories, so parents and children can enjoy a story together, even when they're apart."
As you watch the commercial, a child slips on a penguin mask. A mom puts on her Samsung Gear VR. They enter a magic carpet story world together, which allows them to see each other as crude cartoon avatars, with the ability to talk and wave to each other.
In theory it sounds magical—like FaceTime crossed with a Pixar film—and maybe that’s what it feels like. But I can’t be the only one who watches this commercial and just finds the entire experience profoundly sad. Maybe it’s my own guilt speaking—I myself am a parent who travels a lot—but to see two people, sitting alone, pulling on this clunky head hardware just to share a moment before bed, doesn’t elicit the warm and fuzzy feelings of AT&T’s old "reach out and touch someone" commercials. It looks like we’ve grown so far apart from one another, divided by the never-ending work hours of the modern "connected" world, that the only way we could read a paper book to a child is to don a gyroscope-tracking digital scuba mask connected to spotty hotel Wi-Fi.
In this sense, the ad is an uncomfortable metaphor for a decades-long process that has moved us closer and closer to screens—from 15 feet away from a TV in a living room, to two feet away from a computer monitor in an office, to one foot away from an iPhone screen, to VR, an imperceivable gap between retina and Retina Display.
It’s almost impossible to advertise VR well because VR can only be experienced in VR. And in a commercial, especially when you’ve blocked off someone’s eyes—the fundamental anchor to all social connection—you can’t film VR from the outside and claim to capture what’s going on inside. Selling VR as a solution to loneliness inherently requires we show moments of isolations. These ads will make us think about the things we try not to think about, be it a lonely child, a homebound senior citizen, or even ourselves sitting at our computers for 12 hours a day.
There is little doubt that I’m the target market for Bedtime VR Stories: I’m a traveling parent with a small pile of VR equipment in my living room. And yet I dread the prospect of watching this ad again, let alone tossing a VR headset onto my toddler for him to try it out the next time I’m out of town.
This one crazy commercial won’t sink the prospects of VR, much like that one crazy commercial did nothing to sink the iPhone. But I hope that this dialogue isn't over with VR just yet—despite the current bravado of the industry—and that we can distinguish those moments when it really will bring us closer together, and when it is just another screen keeping us apart.
Because the biggest WTF moment, really, will come when we watch such a commercial, it feels entirely normal, and no one says anything.