You might never watch a movie on virtual reality with friends, despite what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg suggested five years ago. You might never buy stuff with computer based currency Bitcoin. You might never zip around in a robot driven car.

These technologies excite people’s imaginations and hold enormous promise -but they may never be as widely used as their proponents hoped. And that’s probably OK. 

Not every technology needs to be in the hands of billions of people to make a difference. Finding a comfy niche can be good enough.

Not so long ago, V.R. was predicted to become a Very Big Deal, but instead most of us are happy to ignore it. The same goes for a similar technology called augmented reality, which mixes virtual images with the real world and allows people to check out how a pair of shoes might look with their outfit or play the Pokémon Go with smartphone game in the park.

Sales of some V.R. Systems like Facebook’s Oculus did increase during the pandemic, and it’s possible that V.R. and augmented really could still make it big as Apple, Facebook and other companies keep working on the technologies. For years, though, they have remained far outside the mainstream.

As one experience showed, that doesn’t mean that these technologies are destined for the dustbin of failure. It highlights the vast middle ground between a flop and a technology used by billions. 

I can imagine strapping on V.R. googles to take a bike ride in an immersive virtual Sicilian countryside. And some of the most compelling uses I’ve seen for augmented reality have not been for sneakers and games, but in settings like factories and field service where workers might fix elevators while  consulting virtual repair manuals.

After this trough of disillusionment comes the slope of enlightenment, when people retool figure out where technology could be put to more effective use. The outcome may not be as momentous or world changing as initially hoped , but that doesn’t make the technology pointless.

Like V.R. driverless cars may never hit the road in huge numbers - or they might! - but there are potential uses for short-haul delivery vans or fixed routes in office parks. Bitcoin seems so far like a pointless speculative plaything, but similar financial technologies could find a purpose in enabling collective ownership of communal projects like internet networks or local news organizations.

These niches don’t fit the breathless predictions that everyone in the world might use virtual currency or strap on V.R. goggles, but that’s not a terrible thing. Sometimes we need to lower the bar for success. 

The World Students Society thanks author Shira Ovide.


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