The Future of VR: Open Frontier or Walled Gardens

There is a growing discrepancy between the vision and reality of VR. For decades, science fiction and technology visionaries foresaw a future where consumers were able to freely traverse virtual reality like surfing the web. Virtual reality was seen as an open platform where millions of people could share, consume and explore content. Instead of this vision, we are building walled gardens without connectivity between different content. To open VR to its true potential requires innovation around linking content and open platforms. VR is inherently social, but first we must leap the walls tech oligarchs are constructing across the new virtual reality landscape.

Virtual Reality: The Vision

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Thus began 1984’s science fiction classic Neuromancer, which popularized the concept of cyberspace. Gibson’s virtual reality is notable because it was conceptualized before the web existed. This was explored in depth in early cyberpunk works such as TronNueromancerGhost In the Shell, and Snow Crash which shared a future vision of the internet where three-dimensional metaspaces were linked and could be traveled at will. More recently this idea has resurfaced in the the popular, Ready Player One, which also contains visions of three dimensional metaspaces, though they technically exist within one game. Each of these works imagines society taking advantage of a networked cyberspace and the benefits of three dimensional spatial semantics.

The visionaries of science fiction foresaw virtual reality like the web in that content from these worlds is linkable through addresses. Thus anyone with a virtual reality device may visit any address and experience its content, as well as click on links to other virtual reality spaces. For example, a quiet cyberspace cafe, might contain links to coffee bean information, virtual chatrooms, ecommerce stores, bulletin boards or news content. Some of this might be hosted by the cafe, some might be links to other virtual reality spaces or web content.

In 2016 the VR platforms are controlled by tech oligarchs. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlaystationVR, GearVR and even Google Cardboard all focus on building walled gardens. Current VR requires you to purchase devices to experience the content created for that specific VR device, similar to XBox and Playstation consoles. An extreme example is that Samsung GearVR doesn’t have native YouTube support as they see this as competition to their own content. These VR companies are backed by billionaires and technology giants, why would they mess this up?


Explanation via Analogy, 1994: The Information Superhighway

“This emphasis on profit has some in congress worried that the coming information superhighway may be dominated by a handful of big boys.”

Before the Internet was the popular form of the web we use today, there were competing models for how to network devices to deliver content. One famous example is the Information Superhighway which would connect ecommerce, videos, business, music to users through their living room televisions. Again, this idea was slightly before the web, and at the time was a competing model for what the Internet could be.





Brian McCullen, @brianmcc, said in his Internet History Podcast, that Bill Gates “along with his buddies in cable and telecom” thought they could bring the Information Superhighway to users “in a prepackaged and pre-designed way.” Yet, Microsoft and cable networks’ walled gardens “didn’t anticipate that everything the Information Superhighway hoped to be, would bubble up from somewhere else.” The world wide web exploded onto the scene with the first major web browser, Netscape, which opened up the idea of the web and an Internet controlled by no one.


The idea of cable networks controlling the access to the networks through television sets crumbled with Netscape’s free browser that could be downloaded onto any computer, for free, and then access any content across a growing web of mostly free content. Netscape also pioneered technology that made websites more accessible, safer and visually appealing. Their contributions to the web were open source and free for websites and competitors alike to adopt. As Netscape jumpstarted the dotcom boom that would define the 1990s, the concept of the walled gardens of the information superhighway was mostly forgotten.


2016: Bring Down the Walls


1. Linking

The idea of a shared virtual spaces has already been present in many popular games. Second Life, 2003, allowed users to create worlds and experience them together on the internet. Minecraft, 2010 alpha, user’s created and shared worlds was also the core mechanic. Still, these games are walled gardens. A user in Minecraft use a link to take him into a world in Second Life or anywhere else.

Links will give the ability to link any object in a metaspace to another metaspace or web page. Hyperlinks are the simple idea behind the web that makes it open and free. Anyone can link to any other page, and it is expected to be able to quickly load on your browser. iPhones and Androids were around for years before DeepLinking was created, this time we need to begin utilizing linking in VR content right away. Linking will force other content to be open and platform agnostic.

2. VR & the Cloud

This is an area that is ripe for innovations. High intensity graphic processing will need to be done in the cloud and streamed to VR browsers. Cloud Gaming has in development and deployment across a variety of platforms, yet very little of this has been open sourced. Google and Apple have also both taken steps to run apps on their servers and stream the content to interested users before they download the app.

3. Open VR Protocols

This part is moving forward, though slowly. It is an area that needs innovations and companies to lead the way forward. Currently we have browser giant Mozilla is leading the way with MozVR and open WebVR protocols with competitors like startup JanusVR creating it’s own JanusVR Markup Language. In March 2016 Googlesimultaneously released open source Web iframes for VR as well as Android app support for VR View.


We are in the early days of VR. If we want it to exhibit the open culture of the web, we need to begin building that openness now. That way when VR does become a useful tool for society, it will benefit the largest number of people rather than the current of VR’s walled gardens.

If you’re interested in the art and cover art please check out Kilian Eng.

To Love & Hate in the World of Advertising

“I hate ads, who likes to see ads?”

Recently my mother came to visit me in Taipei. On the drive from the airport we talked about my startup, Bubbleye, and how we predict a user’s interests in mobile ads. Her response: “I hate ads, who wants to see ads?”

She’s right, no one wants to see intrusive popup ads. People hate advertising, especially digital. It is seen as both annoyingly intrusive and ethically unacceptable in its casual invasion of privacy. Yet despite all this advertisements are human inventions, labors of love and ingenuity.

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”  
George Orwell, 1984

For those of us working in the advertising we both despise advertising, yet enjoy our jobs. As creators of the ad world this doublethink is our reality. We love ads, we hate ads. I love my job, yet I also encourage my friends to use ad blockers to improve their browsing experience. In Orwell’s 1984, doublethink is a propaganda tool used to edit understanding of truth, yet I see it also as a sophisticated way of understanding the world. To accept two opposing views is to have both knowledge and faith in the forces of the industry to naturally stabilize between the two. Similar to faith that supply and demand’s equilibrium is a place we want to be, I trust that the ad industry will maximize both ad supported free content and enjoyable browsing experiences.

So, lets break down these two sides of love and hate for the ad industry and see what we think the future might hold.

Did you know that ‘apology’ used to mean not an admission of guilt but a defense of one’s position? Plato’s Apology is a retelling of Socrates’s self defense at his trial. As a way of tying together the love and hate of the ad world, I would like to deliver both the modern apology and older definition of an apology for advertising.


I Hate Ads: An Apology for Advertising


The picture below is a screen cap of the highly personalized invasive advertising of the future as portrayed in 2002’s Minority Report.

Ads which cause unsolicited intrusions into your life which produce negative experiences is the cardinal sin of the advertising industry. Louis D. Lo Praeste recently articulated this “ethical conundrum” of the ad world’s ability to inject advertising into every opportunity in the digital experience but only with the hope of a positive user experience and the reality of mostly negative experiences.

The second great sin of advertising is violation of privacy. Societies are still deciding where it is an isn’t appropriate for advertising to collect information, but this effort to understand big data behind advertising is obfuscated by the unseen world of data collection. In addition, it is difficult to decide where to draw the line about individual pieces of nearly meaningless data, which once collected and analyzed can show potentially sensitive information about an individual. Society still has difficulty fathoming what it means that corporations can know my name, friends, locations, habits, and interests.


I Love Ads: An Apology of Advertising

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”
–Jeff Hammerbacher, 2011

Hammerbacher’s infamous quote is where I would like to start my apology of advertising. That advertising generates wealth for small businesses and content creators is something that is well understood and currently being discussed across many digital mediums. Less popular are the ideas that advertising both spreads information and breeds innovation.

Seeing an ad spreads information. Given that information is of high value and true, this is an extremely positive thing. The information is being spread in a non natural way, funded by money. Marketing campaigns can help the smallest and biggest players accelerate their natural word of mouth growth. Thus more efficient advertisements are more efficiently accelerating economic growth. For example, Tesla’s ability to hype its products is not only accelerating their growth, but accelerating the mainstream acceptance of electric vehicles around the world. This of course can have runaway effects and has caused governments to regulate commercials targeted to children, or possibly addictive activities. Advertising’s power to spread of information is overall a positive effect as it is moderately regulated.

Advertising breeds innovation because that is where the money is ready to be spent. While that may seem materialistic, some ad product concepts are expensive and difficult to develop. Capital support is necessary for research and development, which will later spread to other sectors. For example, big data research has been at the forefront of adtech companies. These innovations benefit machine learning and data mining in other industries which are not directly related to advertising yet benefit from this boon of advances.

 Conclusion: Accepting Evolution

 The evolution of the advertising industry is not lockstep with the society’s understanding of the advertising industry. Advertising has evolved so fast that society is currently still grappling with the wider implications of these changes. It is important for both insiders and outsiders to understand the forces moving advertising, and weigh the benefits and costs. This evolution of the advertising industry can be influenced by those outside of it, as it is currently by the uptake in ad blocking technology. This is a positive force that should be accepted. At the same time ad industry insiders are evolving the industry to show less but more targeted advertising. Balanced together these forces push advertising, innovation and society to better places.