VR & the Potato Chip Test
November 3rd, 2022

VR headsets have this odd effect. People put them on for thirty minutes, are enthralled, call them the greatest thing ever, and then put them back on the shelf where they collect dust.

I think it has to do with the commitment involved to use them. I'm not sure if another term for this exists so I'm coining one now: The Potato Chip Test. Does your new consumer innovation make it easier to eat potato chips while using?

The idea comes from a general trend in consumer tech that everything becomes easier rather than harder to use. Sort of a distillation of "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed yet". Ebay allowed you to roam niche conventions and flea markets without waking up at 6am and heading to a parking lot. Facebook made it easier to stay in touch with people. Word processors meant you didn't need to attend typing school.

Perhaps a more apt comparison to VR would be moving pictures. Originally, if you wanted to see people act out a story you needed to attend a stage play. That meant you usually needed to go to a major city. You definitely needed to stay dead quiet during the production.

Then the movie came along and you could at least be loud enough to munch on popcorn. Following movies, you had television. That allowed for more chomping. So much so that it invented a food category.

Facebook, which arguably killed TV, was even easier. You were no longer tethered to a room or some big black plastic box. Your phone and "kill time" entertainment followed you everywhere, from counter to table.

VR seems completely opposite to this. It's a commitment to use a headset. You have to dedicate some time to getting into the immersion. You need to dedicate a significant amount of space for it too. Once your inside, you can't really drink water or eat anything without stopping the action. Friends can't "play VR" with you so its, ironically, fairly solitary.

Has there ever been any consumer technology that made things harder versus easier to use?

To be clear, if VR was bringing down the cost of something that people already used then I'd agree it was a net positive. This would be akin to movies replacing stage plays. But VR doesn't seem to fit that mold to me. There wasn't really a select group of people using or doing something that VR sank the costs on.

Sure, you could say VR enables normally expensive experiences to be had at a fraction of the cost but in my experience (I own an Oculus Go), VR experiences felt completely different. Like not even close.

Things like virtual roller coasters only gave me a headache. I bought an app that let you use Google Streetview to travel the world but it never mimicked the feeling of wandering around like I thought it would. Even apps like Microsoft Teams which is coming out for the new Meta Quest Pro don't look like they'll compare to Zoom, which can be thought of as a cheaper alternative to being physically present in a meeting. Is VR even solving an important problem?