Virtual Reality & The Power Of Crowds
Author: Sebastian Bos
After lingering for decades in sci-fi literature and the public imagination, virtual reality finally became feasible in the 1980s. Game consoles and various forms of media began to crop up, and the technology’s potential generated a tremendous amount of excitement. But VR never really caught on. Though it found homes in flight simulation, military applications, and niche scientific settings, VR never quite gained a foothold in the consumer marketplace. So by the 1990s, virtual reality had all but vanished from the public eye. Investors saw it as a risky pipe dream without much market potential, and R&D funding evaporated for the next two decades.
The Right Climate For Virtual Reality Crowdfunding
Today, VR is back, and this time it seems almost certain to stay. Not only has technological progress opened up new worlds of potential for VR, but more importantly, there has been a crucial climate change in societal thought and interaction—one that has set the stage for VR to blossom. Crowdfunding is a telling manifestation of this change. The Internet has given us an unprecedented platform for connection, linking people across the globe and allowing us to collaborate in massive numbers like never before.
Back in the 90s, when a handful of big investors shied away from virtual reality, the industry collapsed. Major tech companies were convinced that the market for VR simply couldn’t support their investments, and they had little to indicate that they were wrong: There simply wasn’t a viable way to measure demand for products that hadn’t been developed yet.
Game-Changing Crowdfunding Platform
In 2009, the launch of Kickstarter fundamentally altered the relationship between developers and consumers. Entrepreneurs, inventors and businesses were suddenly given an instrument for gauging public interest in technologies they wanted to pioneer. Take the Oculus Rift, for instance. In 2011, 18-year old Palmer Luckey built a rough prototype in his parent’s garage. The next year, his Kickstarter raised $2.4 million from nearly 10,000 contributors, the company took off, and the renaissance of the VR industry began.
The Oculus’ unexpected success suddenly illuminated the tremendous demand for VR technology—even before any products were actually on the market—and so companies around the world dove into projects of their own. Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion, solidifying the nascent company firmly into place as a dominant player in the resurging industry. That same year, Kickstarter became a springboard for Avegant’s Glyph, a personal VR theater system that met its $250,000 goal in just four hours and went on to receive $1.5 million from the campaign. In fact, as this list of recent innovative gadgets attests, it seems the majority of groundbreaking technologies today get their start on sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo.
This is because crowdfunding allows startups to make the leap from prototype to production without having to convince investors to take big risks in unproven technologies. At the same time, platforms like Kickstarter give consumers a voice in the development process, allowing the public to have a direct impact on the way the technology takes shape and giving ordinary people a chance to support envelope-pushing projects that may never have found funding otherwise. Both Oculus and Avegant sent out developers kits to their supporters, who in turn provided feedback that helped these companies improve their products.
Measuring Risk Of VR Related Crowdfunding Campaign
Of course, crowdfunding isn’t always a boon for consumers. While the examples above demonstrate how consumers and developers can collaborate to bring innovative technologies to market, there are also plenty of instances where crowdfunded contributions have been met with silence.
More than two years after Sixsense raised $600,000 for its VR-compatible controller, contributors are still waiting for their long overdue developers kits. Having repeatedly promised and then postponed ship dates, the company is refusing to give refunds. Similarly, after the 2013 Kickstarter campaign for vrAse Googles raised some £66,000 from a mere 782 contributors, they missed their ship date, were investigated for fraud by the Scotland Police, and despite promises, still haven’t mailed their kits. In the case of the ANTVR gaming system, backers provided over $260,000 only to receive kits that didn’t work.
Yet as those who use it know, funding a Kickstarter project doesn’t guarantee its success. There is always risk involved in the investment, and the fact that many of these companies will never actually bring a product to market is precisely why investors backed out of the VR industry in the 1990s. The difference now, however, is that crowdsourcing makes the risk much smaller by distributing it widely, and backers are motivated by more than money.
The cultural and technological shift that made crowdfunding so successful is the same one fueling the current boom in VR. Crowdfunding lets us interact, collaborate, and support each other in a radically new way; it is attractive because it brings us closer together.
Virtual Reality has enormous potential to do the same: letting us communicate more intimately, empathize more deeply, and collaborate across vast distances in unprecedented ways. As an increasingly interconnected global community, we are hungry for the communal platforms VR can provide. So the crowd is coming together today to fund technologies that will help us become an even more powerful crowd tomorrow.