A few weeks ago, I was discussing with a colleague of mine that I hadn’t seen for months, and while we were updating ourselves about each other’s lives, we started talking about our VR careers. We both are in a better situation than a few years ago, so at a certain point, he told me a sentence that made me think: “I’m finally now harvesting the fruits of the plants I sowed in the past years”. This sentence remained in my head after the call, and from time to time I kept thinking about it. I have to say that also from my personal experience, it is true: now it’s the time to harvest for us VR people.
The Gartner Hype cycle of VR
I work in the XR field since 2014, and I’ve been able to follow almost all of its hype cycle.
A few weeks after I officially entered VR, the technology started being overhyped after Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus. There was a lot of enthusiasm and hope. The community was creating a lot of prototypes, and many companies in the US were getting funding to develop immersive products.
Everyone was waiting for the Oculus Rift CV1, the first Virtual Reality “consumer headset” for the technology to boom… but then when it launched, it was actually a boom-erang, because the price was too high and the features too limited to have a real consumer appeal. We entered so the “winter of VR”, which happened between 2017 and the first part of 2019, that is the period when virtual reality was considered “dead”, and it was very hard to survive in the ecosystem. Venture capitalists started avoiding XR, and I myself had a very hard time surviving doing my job as a VR consultant after my first startup failed.
Then the Quest arrived, and it brought hope again into the field. The Quest cracked the formula for VR consumer success, and then other things happened that increased the popularity of VR, like the release of Half-Life: Alyx in 2020 which created a huge hype. The pandemic, while terrible on a human standpoint, helped VR adoption in growing, too. After 2019, we had companies wo managed to survive just by doing virtual reality, and the enthusiasm started growing again, together with investments from VCs.
2021 has been the year of the Metaverse, with the announcement of the change of name of Facebook to Meta, which caused an explosion of interest in the tech world. Many people started to enter immersive realities (and/or Web3), immediately understanding its potential and trying to chase easy money. The XR field is now growing, and the long-term outlook is also great, with the upcoming release of the Apple mixed reality headset which is for sure going to re-ignite the hype for immersive realities again. It is a good time to be in the field, which is repaying us for the very dark years of the winter of VR.
Meta as a positive force for VR development
I am often very critical of Meta and its vision of the metaverse, especially for what concerns users’ privacy. But it is undeniable that Facebook/Meta has been a force speeding up the development of immersive technology and one of the main drivers of the current positive situation. If you follow the story described above, you can see that the hype for VR in 2014 was caused by Facebook buying Oculus. Then in 2019, it was the Facebook Oculus Quest’s success to give new life to the ecosystem. And then in 2021, it was Mark Zuckerberg launching the hype for the Metaverse.
And there is even more: Meta is financing games for its store; it is sponsoring events and other initiatives happening in XR; it is increasing the awareness of the technology paying for commercials on TV and in the streets in the US; and it is hiring an enormous amount of people to work in the metaverse. Its huge investments are also attracting all the other major tech companies to enter the metaverse field, and Apple and Google will surely release some XR devices in the upcoming years because of that.
We can object to lots of things about Meta, and you can also say that it is doing the right things but for the wrong reason (i.e. targeted ads business), but if we focus strictly on the outcome, I think we can agree that without Meta, VR would have taken many more years to become a mainstream technology. It has not been the only company helping XR (HTC did a lot for kickstarting enterprise VR, for instance; Valve created many technologies used by current VR headsets, etc…), but it was the company that did the most to speed up the development of XR and I think it’s important to recognize it.
(By the way, no, I’ve not been paid to write this paragraph and I’m not a Meta Ambassador. I’m just writing things as they are. Then, of course, I will continue my battle for privacy and openness in XR and for this, I have also many critics for Meta. But it’s fair also to recognize its merits)
The time is now
When my friend talked about harvesting what he sowed, I replied that it was happening the same to me, too. I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional career believing in a technology that was too niche. I remember when in 2015 I went to speak with other tech companies, and they didn’t even know what “virtual reality” was. In the years of the winter of VR, things were still complicated, and with my agency New Technology Walkers, we did every kind of project that we could to survive. On social media, we all of the VR community kept repeating that we were in “survival mode”, and that we were sacrificing hoping for a better future, that is the moment when the rising tide of VR would have taken us up. Well, I have to say, that, in case you were waiting for it: that time is now.
I can see this in my professional life every day. My current situation is now quite positive: my blog is growing and is itself a revenue stream. I’ve published with my team a fitness game which got very good feedback, and that we are thinking about expanding. With VRrOOm, I’ve created amazing events, like the VR world of SXSW, and we are now working for something big to be released in January 2023. I’ve many requests for consultancies about the metaverse, or for projects to do in XR. I’ve co-organized a physical event about the metaverse, even co-written the chapter of a book about it. I am even having more requests than I can handle, something that was unthinkable a few years ago.
And I’m seeing around me a richer ecosystem, too: some indies around me are having success with their VR games and some have even been promoted to the Quest Store. Some of my friends now work in VR at Meta, someone else is at Apple, and often I’m seeing that the people that were well-known in the community are getting good job positions inside important companies. I know that there are many more grants about XR, metaverse, and related technologies, offered by specific countries or the European Union. It’s not just me, it’s the whole ecosystem around me that has grown in a healthy way. Many people that some years ago told me or my buddy Massimiliano Ariani that VR was not interesting for them, now are working on XR projects, because the technology is at a point that is relevant for them, too.
The whole immersive space is growing, so the time when the tide can bring you up is now. I mean, you don’t have to rush, it is not “today”, but it is these months. Some years ago, we were just nerds that have read too much Ready Player One. After the year 2026, we will be just one of the many that do XR, a commodity technology. But now, we are the ones that are in a new growing field but we have already years of experience in it. And not the fake experience of people that from one day to another have become “Metaverse Experts” on Linkedin, but real experience on the field, real connections with the community, and real knowledge of the hardware. Now we can be very precious. If you were waiting for a sign of God to do something cool in the field, well… this is your sign.
I would suggest to act in the next 12 months, when the hype of the metaverse (and the Apple headset) is still high, and no one is saying “the metaverse is dead”, yet. But remember that that time, the winter of the metaverse will come, as it has come for all the disruptive technologies of the past.
Beware that there are still issues
Before going on, it’s good that I remember you of a few caveats. First of all, XR technology is growing, but we are still in the “early days”. For instance, giving some examples from my personal life, there are very few serious VR game publishers, and I managed to find none interested in our fitness game HitMotion. There are few serious VR magazines, and being featured in them is hard. And if Beat Saber made more than $100M, there are still many indies that earn too little money for their games. I’m not saying that now is a golden age when everyone is getting rich, it is actually still hard to make money in immersive realities. I’m saying that the current situation shows a positive trend and a decent profitability which is enough to start a project in this ecosystem, make it grow, and eventually succeed. XR is now too early to be mature, but mature enough so that there is a market. You can so start a career that evolves fast towards success in the upcoming years.
Then, we are actually living in terrible economic conditions: because of the pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, and the rising inflation, now for instance VCs are more reluctant in investing money, and big tech companies are actually freezing hiring or laying off people. So, 8 months ago the situation was better than now… it was a better time to look for funding . But even if we are in this sad moment for humanity, I still see a lot of activity in the XR field. So, when hopefully the international situation improves, we will get back to normal.
The cryptocrash has also influenced the career of many XR companies which were implementing Web3. The chip shortage situation has improve, but it will probably require one more year to be fixed. So, there are still many problems now.
That’s why I’m not saying you to consider this exact moment, but more a timespan, ideally of the next 12-24 months. There will always be problems about something, but the trend now is positive, and the “metaverse technologies” are for sure going to succeed in the upcoming years, because they have too much potential to fail.
What should you do?
So, in my opinion, now it’s the time you should harvest.
If you have been in the field for a long time, you have awaited this moment for years, you have done many sacrifices, and now it’s the time first of all to just enjoy the view from the top of the tide. Just a quick view, that you deserved after so much effort.
And then, after a quick glance, you have actually to keep surfing the tide. Being the metaverse a hot topic, it is now full of people that want to do business like you. People and companies that were already successful in another field are bringing their brand and community with them and are now competing directly with you with a strategic advantage. You can’t just rest on your past experience, because… I’m sorry, but this is not how life works. If you don’t move, if you don’t keep surfing the top of the tide, you will fall back to the sea again.
I remember another friend of mine, when I visited his labs in Switzerland, told me “I’m afraid we could be like people working at Palm before the iPhone came out. People at the top in their field, until they were disrupted by the competition”. I can tell you that this is a fear that I have myself sometimes: for instance, if we talk about this blog… what if in 2 years from now, VR people will actually read the blog of a very famous Unity developer that in the meantime switched to talk about the metaverse? People could just remember The Ghost Howls as “Oh, that blog that I was used to read during the good old days. I wonder what that guy is doing now”… and I would probably be frying potatoes at McDonald’s. This is still a possible scenario (not that bad, considering that I love fries). The fact that you are at the top at a certain moment doesn’t guarantee that you will be like that in the future, especially in a fast-moving field like this one, where a lot of new people are entering now, following the hype.
The only way to avoid being disrupted is to keep doing innovative things, improve yourself, and follow the latest trends. Keep moving, and don’t rest. This is what I’m personally doing and this is what you should do too. I know it sounds like a cliché, but to keep being at the forefront, you have to never stop learning, never stop competing, never stop doing the best that you can. And this is why I’m keeping writing high-quality articles, and I’m keeping experimenting with new devices and new technologies every day. And especially, I always give a look to every opportunity I have around: there are many, and you never know where they can lead you to. So, seize the many opportunities that are now in the metaverse field. Will this guarantee me or you success for the upcoming years? No, at all. But let’s say that this attitude will give us higher chances of having a satisfying working life in the future.
If you start with the advantage of many years of experience in the field, this is like a booster you have for the first years, and you have to use it at your advantage to reach the position that you want. So, since the time is now, try to reach now the results that you aim for. There are many things you can do in the field: developing an application, writing a book about XR, starting a podcast, launching your game, being hired by an important company. Whatever you want, I think the next 12 months is the right period to try doing that. And in the meantime keep studying, keep developing connections… exploit the booster that you have to run on top of the tide. And if one road doesn’t work, try another one. You have time, it is not something you have to do in one day, but if you start now, probably 1 year from now, you will be in a better situation than today.
My last piece of advice is to embrace the chaos and disrupt yourself in the process. XR/metaverse field is not only growing, but it is changing. For instance, something that still strikes me is that the VR-related subreddits, which were used to be full of very interesting technical posts 5 years ago, now mostly appreciate only memes, news of games, and GIFs of gameplay. They have become more consumer-oriented, and so if I try to publish a technical article there, rarely it has success anymore. So now I try to publish more pop things, like memes.
This small example shows you how a lot of things change fast in the XR field, and to be on the top, you have to evolve with it. And you have also to disrupt yourself, to try to be a bit more ambitious and determined, to be practical and focused. You have to force yourself to do a bit more than what you were used to do. I’m not talking about changing your nature, I’m talking about growing, improving, and being more practical and determined. For instance, if you always wanted to write a book about XR but were afraid because you were unsure about it, it’s the time to take the courage to go for that bigger venture. If you want to step up your game, you have to disrupt yourself, you have to grow as a person and a professional.
And remember: If you will look next to you, while you are surfing the XR wave, you can see me trying to do the same, and also hopefully trying to help you. Let’s build this metaverse, together. The time is now.
(Header image by Daniele Franchi)
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