Answers for the Eight Questions I Asked About VR in 2016

by Peter Rojas


Now that it's 2017, I thought I'd look back and see if there are answers for the eight questions I asked a year ago about virtual reality in 2016. Here goes:

"How big will the market for VR be a year from now?"

This isn't an easy to question to answer right now. My guesstimate a year ago was that by the end of 2016 there would be around 10 million active users of VR. I absent-mindedly didn't think to define what I meant by "active user" -- I suppose I meant someone who uses VR at least a couple of times a month -- but even if I had been more specific, I haven't seen any reliable numbers on how many people are regular users of VR anyway.

The most reliable-looking numbers I could find were some recent estimates of headset sales from SuperData Research, a research firm based in New York. They released 2016 sales projections in November that put Samsung at around 2.3M Gear VR headsets, Sony at 745K PSVR headsets, Oculus at 350K Rift CV1 headsets, HTC at 420K Vive headsets, and Google at 260K Daydream headsets. That's just over 4 million headsets. They also estimated overall there would be about 16 million VR users by the end of 2016, which means they're almost certainly including people using really basic headsets like Google Cardboard to get to that number.

We can debate whether or not very basic headsets like Cardboard should "count", but if I'm being honest I wasn't including them when I came up with my guess of 10 million VR users by the end of 2016. How did I get to that number? I figured that by the end of the year there would be 3-5 million Gear VR users, 3-5 million PSVR users, 1-2 million Oculus Rift owners, and 500k-1M HTC Vive owners. That's not far off from projections that analyst firm Piper Jaffray made in 2015 (I've included those numbers in a chart alongside those from SuperData).

Here's where things get messy. Samsung announced at CES earlier this week that they'd shipped 5 million Gear VR headsets, more than double SuperData's estimates. That does cast some doubt on the accuracy of their sales estimates for other headsets, but I don't think anyone believes that sales of the Rift or Vive approached anywhere near Piper Jaffray's projections.  

We're still in the very early days of VR -- in my post a year ago I compared where we were to the smartphone market pre-iPhone -- so perhaps it's pointless to argue over whether headset sales falling below some analyst's projections even matters. But one big difference between smartphones and VR is that even before the iPhone was announced it seemed inevitable to most observers that smartphones would become ubiquitous. It was just a matter of how and when, not if. With VR it is still very much an open question whether it will remain a relatively niche market or find a wider audience. How strong or weak sales are at this early stage aren't determinative, but they do give us at least some indication where things are going. I'll have more on this for my questions for VR in 2017.

"Will headsets be a commodity or a source of competitive advantage?"

Too early to say yet, but at the very least Oculus' fully integrated model does seem like it's due for a collision with Microsoft and Google's strategies of working with OEMs to build cheap headsets. I doubt that we'll have any idea of how this shakes out for a few years, but VR definitely doesn't have a shot at going mainstream until you can buy a high-quality headset with room-scale positional tracking (which allows you to physically move around in virtual spaces, leading to a much more immersive experience) for less than a couple of hundred bucks.

"Speaking of hardware, what will the relationship be between high-end and low-end VR?"

There's not much evidence that owning a Gear VR or Daydream headset leads to buying a Rift or Vive (or investing in a PC to power it), but 2016 did see Oculus teasing the "Santa Cruz", a prototype of a self-contained mobile headset with inside-out positional tracking. This could end up being a sort of third category in-between the lower end stuff (which is powered by popping your smartphone into a headset) and the higher end stuff (which offers the best and most immersive experience, but which also requires a powerful PC with a dedicated GPU). Intel showed off an early version of headset along these lines code-named Project Alloy (pictured above), and Google is rumored to be working on something here as well. It's possible that this will be how a lot of people get to experience true room-scale VR.

"Will regular people create and share VR content? If so, how?"

Even though Facebook and YouTube have started supporting it, very few people are sharing VR (and really we're talking 360) photos and videos online. This is partly because you need a dedicated 360 camera for creation (apps for doing this on a smartphone are uniformly awful) and partly because even if you do share something it's unlikely that your friends or family will have a headset for properly looking at what you've shared in 360. I looked at a number of startups building platforms for sharing 360 photos and videos, but ended up passing on all of them, partly because of how small the market still is and partly because of concerns that Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc will eventually drive a lot of this activity since they're where people are already sharing and consuming photos and videos. Underscoring my point, Vrideo, which was building a YouTube-for-360-video, shut down late last year (betaworks was an investor, though this deal was made before I joined). They'd managed to aggregate one of the biggest audiences for VR content to-date and they still couldn't find a way to make it work, and believe me, they tried. I'd love to find something great in this space, but the bar is very high.

"Will there be an app which drives mainstream adoption?"

Didn't happen in 2016. But if you're building this, definitely find me. That said, VR apps in general did shoot up the iOS App Store charts this past holiday season, which presumably means a lot of regular consumers received basic "pop your phone in" headsets as gifts and started giving VR a try.

"What will be the user experience paradigms which define VR?

This still feels entirely up for grabs, but we did see a ton of experimentation, particularly in gaming. Related to this, developers of social VR products and games were forced this past year to confront thorny issues around harassment in virtual environments. It's not something which can be easily shrugged off, and while there is a long way to go, I'm starting to see some developers rolling out solutions to try and address the problem.

"What will Microsoft end up doing?"

Well, we got our answer, at least in part, with the announcement of Windows Holographic and the line of VR headsets which partners are making for it, but we still know very little about how VR will factor into the upcoming "Project Scorpio" Xbox due out before the end of the year.

"What will Apple end up doing?"

I'm highly skeptical that Apple is building a clear iPhone 7 for AR and VR, but apart from that rumor we don't have a strong sense of what Cupertino is going to do here. We do know that a few months ago Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed skepticism about VR, saying that it, "Is not going to be that big compared to AR," so it's entirely possible they'll continue to ignore the market and focus instead on launching something related to AR in a year or two (or possibly more).

Ok, thanks for reading! I'll be back with my questions for VR in 2017 in a few days.


My favorite history podcasts

by Peter Rojas


I love podcasts, having been both an avid consumer and on-again-off-again producer of them for over ten years now. But what might surprise you, at least if you're familiar with my work, is that the podcasts I love most are about history and that I almost never listen to shows about tech. Good history podcasts can be hard to find, especially as they tend to get buried in the "Education" category in iTunes and other directories, so I thought I'd share my list of shows I listen to. And please hit me up with any suggestions for podcasts I've missed that I should check out!

 

History podcasts I listen to regularly:

 

If you know any history podcasts you probably know Mike Duncan's The History of Rome and Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. Both are legendary, in terms of both their quality and how many other history podcasts they've gone on to inspire. If you haven't listened to any history podcasts I'd suggest starting with these two.

Hardcore History

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History isn't just the best history podcast ever made, it's a serious contender for best podcast of all-time. Dan only produces a few episodes a year, but each one is epic in scope and length (seriously, it's not unusual for an episode to be three hours long) and is amazingly well-researched, engaging, and in-depth. Each episode or short series of episodes covers a specific topic, ranging from the Mongol Horde, to WWI, to the fall of the Roman Republic. If you're only going to subscribe to one podcast from this list you have to make it this one.

Revolutions

The new series from Mike Duncan of The History of Rome fame, this one follows different revolutions throughout history, beginning with the English Revolution, then the American Revolution, the French Revolution, (the absolutely compelling, but little discussed) Haitian Revolution, and now is close to wrapping up his series on the wars of Latin American independence (I have a fourth great grandfather who fought on the losing side in Peru). This is one of the must-listens when it comes to history podcasts.

My History Can Beat Up Your Politics

I don't listen to that many American history podcasts, but this show by Bruce Carlson hooked me because he does a masterful job of putting the political issues of today in historical context. He's especially good at digging up bits of American political history that have mainly been forgotten (like obscure fights over the House Speakership in the late Nineteenth Century) that I find utterly fascinating.

The Ancient World

A series on ancient history by Scott Chesworth, this may be the most underappreciated podcast on this list. Now in its third season, for season one Scott did a wide-ranging survey of ancient civilizations, beginning with the rise of Sumeria and finishing up with Alexander the Great, looked at the archaeologists that rediscovered these civilizations in season two, and now in season three is tracing the family tree that begin with Cleopatra and will end with Queen Zenobia.

The History of Byzantium

There were more than a few people who wanted Mike Duncan to keep The History of Rome podcast going past the collapse of the Western Empire in 476 and follow the story all the way to the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. He didn't do that, but it opened up the opportunity for someone else to tell the story and fortunately for us Robin Pierson jumped on it and started The History of Byzantium, which picks up right where Mike left off. I'd actually argue that as good as The History of Rome was, The History of Byzantium is the better of the two podcasts in that Robin tends to go into more depth and offer more context as he tells the story.

History of the Crusades

The audio quality is a little rough in the early episodes, but this series offers a balanced look at the Crusades, beginning with Pope Urban II's call for the First Crusade in 1095 all the way until the fall of Acre in 1291. I found this about two-thirds of the way through the series and at one point was binge-listening to three or four episodes a day in an attempt to catch up. Host Sharyn Eastaugh has been continuing the series by looking at the crusade against the Cathars of southern France.

The History of English

This one is worth checking out even if you're not all that interested in the origins of the English language -- though you should be! The early episodes discussing the Indo-Europeans and the Proto-Indo-European language which is the source of not just English, but of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Persian, German, etc, are especially fascinating.

10 American Presidents

A series that plans to do shows on ten different American presidents, each with a different history podcaster handling narration duties. Mike Duncan of The History of Rome and Revolutions did the first episode on George Washington and Dan Carlin of Hardcore History followed up with an episode about Richard Nixon.

History of the Papacy

I'm not religious, but the history of the early Christian Church is a lot more interesting than you'd think. Host Stephen Guerra does an excellent job of teasing out the intricate theological debates that raged during this era, as well as how events intersected with the wider historical landscape.

A History of Europe - Key Battles

A series that looks at key battles that were turning points in the history of Europe, beginning with the Battle of Marathon. Host Carl Rylett doesn't offer as much of a blow-by-blow of the battles themselves as he does on the political and historical events leading up to the battles (which is totally fine with me).

The Podcast History of Our World

Doing a podcast about the entire history of the world is pretty ambitious, so don't expect as much depth as you'd get on a more focused show, but this one is an enjoyable survey that's 70 episodes in and just now getting to the Romans. Not updated very regularly any more.

Wartime

Hosted by historian Brady Crytzer, each season of Wartime focuses on different topic. The first covered the French & Indian War, the second the empires of the ancient world, the third the American Revolution, the fourth on "gamechanging" historical figures like Alexander the Great, the fifth on turning points like the Mexican-American War and the Battle of Midway, and the sixth on some of the lesser-known rebellions of colonial North America (for example I knew nothing about the Pueblo Revolt that took place in New Mexico in 1680). This one is less of a dates-and-battles podcast and more about understanding the forces that shape history. I'd start with Season 2.

In Our Time

A roundtable format podcast hosted by Melvyn Bragg for BBC Radio 4 that features a single topic per episode discussed by a panel of academics. This one isn't just about history -- they also cover science and culture -- but they manage to cover topics ranging from the Gettysburg Address and Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Sikh Empire and Hatshepsut.


New history podcasts (or that are new to me) that I recently started listening to and am excited about:

 

History on Fire

This is one of the few shows that consciously tries to emulate the depth, length, and even style of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History (which is not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned). Only four (very long) episodes have been released so far, two on the Slave Wars of ancient Rome, one on the body of a Bronze Age ice man who was discovered in the Tyrol mountains a few years ago, and one that begins the story of the 10,000 Greek mercenaries who went to fight in a Persian civil war some 2,500 years ago. Host Daniele Bolelli, who teaches history, does have a strong Italian accent, but you sort of don't notice it after a bit and I'm enjoying his shows.

The Maritime History Podcast

Begins with the earliest known seafaring activities (i.e. ancient Sumaria) and after a couple of dozen episodes is now up to the Phoenicians and Carthage.

Wittenberg to Westphalia: Wars of the Reformation

A promising new series on the religious wars of early modern Europe. The history of this era can be tough to untangle and I look forward to seeing how host Benjamin Jacobs handles it.

The Almost Forgotten

A show where each episode highlights a single individual who hasn't exactly been lost to history, but who doesn't get anywhere near the attention they deserve given the impact they had. Only ten episodes so far, but they've covered a number of fascinating figures, including Otto the Great, Chandrgupta Maurya, and Mithridates.

Our Fake History

A podcast about "myths we think are history and history that might be hidden in myths," this one tackles stuff like whether the Chinese beat Columbus to the New World, was there actually a Trojan War, and who really killed Rasputin. Host Sebastian Major does a great job of being enthusiastic while skeptical.

 

History podcast series that have ended, but that I recommend:

 

The History of Rome

A history of Rome in 179 episodes, all the way from its semi-legendary origins down to the fall of the Western Empire in 476. Almost every history podcaster points to this series as the one inspiring them to start their own podcast. Host Mike Duncan is now working on a new series called Revolutions (see above).

12 Byzantine Rulers

A limited series by Lars Brownworth that starts with Diocletian's splitting of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves and then tells the story of the surviving Eastern half as it becomes the Byzantine Empire through twelve of its most important rulers.

Norman Centuries

Another limited series by Lars Brownworth, this one on the impact the Normans of Northern France had on medieval Europe.

A History of Alexander the Great

Follows the life of Alexander the Great. Which I guess is self-explanatory. Hosted by Jamie Redfern, who also does A History of Hannibal.

Belisarius - A History

A series about Belisarius, a Byzantine general during the 6th century, is about as niche as a podcast can get, but the story of his life is absolutely fascinating, especially given how overlooked the period just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire is. Only sixteen episodes.

 

Other history podcasts I subscribe to but don't listen to frequently:

 

BackStory

One of the few podcasts specifically about American history that I subscribe to. Each episode is on a single topic related to American history or culture, like alcohol, shopping, or oil.

Ancient Warfare Podcast

This one is an offshoot of Ancient Warfare magazine and features a roundtable discussion of the theme of the magazine's latest issue. Audio quality can be rough, but where else are you going to get a show about the Seleucid Empire, the organization of the Assyrian army, or the Roman conquest of Spain?

History Extra

A weekly podcast produced by the BBC History Magazine. Focus is mainly on British history -- which is not unexpected -- but the interviews with history scholars are engaging no matter what the topic.

History Books Review

Mainly an extended review of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire mixed in with the occasional episode on another history book. Irregularly updated.

A History of Hannibal

By Jamie Redfern, who also produced A History of Alexander the Great. Not just a recounting of Hannibal's exploits, this one provides a lot of background on how Rome and Carthage ended up at war.

Life of Caesar

Covers the life of Julius Caesar, just like it says. Though now that they've reached the Ides of March they've moved on to the life of Augustus. Co-hosts Cameron Reilly and Ray Harris have a pretty conversational style which some people don't care for.

The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast

An earlier series by Cameron Reilly, this one with co-host J. David Markham.

Ask Historians

An off-shoot of the AskHistorians subreddit. Audio quality can be rough, but the breadth of topics is great.

The British History Podcast

An astonishingly in-depth series covering the entire history of Britain that kicks off about 70,000 years ago and after 227 episodes is only up to King Alfred.

The Egyptian History Podcast

Like The History of Rome, but about Egypt.

The History of Iran

This is a series that held out so much promise -- I personally find the history of Iran and ancient Persia to be fascinating -- but new episodes are posted infrequently.

When Diplomacy Fails

This show does short series on various wars and conflicts (the Seven Years War, the the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, etc), but looks mainly at the events leading up to the outbreak of hostility rather than the emphasizing the fighting itself.


History podcasts on my list to check out:

These are shows that I've found over the past few years, but for one reason or another haven't listened to yet (or at least not beyond an episode or two).


The Anglo Saxons

The Lesser Bonapartes

The History of Alchemy

The Myths and History of Greece and Rome

History of Germany

Medieval Archives

History Bomb

The Great War

The Podcast of Doom

The History of Pirates

Russian Rulers

Ancient Rome Refocused

A History of the World in 100 Objects

Stuff You Missed in History Class

Emperors of Rome

Professor CJ's Dangerous History Podcast

 


Open Office Hours: December 16th

by Peter Rojas


With things slowing down ahead of the holidays I thought it'd be a good time to hold open office hours again. Sign up via the link below if you'd like to pitch me your startup, get feedback on a product idea, ask for advice on fundraising or finding a job, chat about VR, etc.

I'm doing these office hours via Skype to make it easy for those outside the Bay Area, all I ask is that you don't grab a slot unless you're sure you can make it. Thanks!

Book a slot here

 


Yes, you can email me

by Peter Rojas


It kind of bums me out when investors say they won't chat with a founder without an introduction from someone they trust. I understand why a VC would do this; if you've been around long enough -- and are halfway good at what you do -- you're bound to have so many entrepreneurs pitching you that you have to have a filter of some kind. I'm still new. 

But new or not, my goal is to always be accessible because while anyone can have a good idea, not everyone has connections. I remember what it was like being on the outside of all this stuff and how much it meant to me when people I respected would agree to chat just on the basis of a cold email. So I've committed to keeping the filter open, even if it means dealing with a lot of email rather than ignoring it.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions on how to send me a cold email:

Use my contact form. It's easier than digging around for my email address and I have a Gmail filter setup to make sure I see everything that comes in this way. If you have my email address it's also fine to email me directly.

Don't try to sell me something. I don't feel bad about ignoring these emails.

Looking for investment? Let me know that you're raising money (or thinking about it) and give me an idea of what the product is. Also, take a couple of minutes before you write to familiarize yourself with the what kind of investing we do at betaworks ventures. We may not be the best fit for you in terms of stage/market/check size. Of course, if you're not sure, it's completely fine to ask. If you're working on something that's relevant to me as an investor, odds are that I'll be happy to meet with you. It's kind of my job, right?

Looking for advice on something you're building? Give me a brief description of the product and the kind of advice you're looking for.

Looking for career advice? I can't guarantee I'll have anything useful to offer, but I'll try to be helpful.

Want me to speak at your conference or event? Sure, please ask!  

Want me to try out your product? My gadget reviewing days are long past, but if you'd like me to check something out I'll probably say yes.

One last thing: Don't ask me for an introduction to someone else I know. It's hard for me to make introductions for people I don't know.

That's about it. I promise I'll do my best to get back to you.


When do bots beat apps? When context and convenience matter most

by Peter Rojas


There's a question I've been asking founders when they pitch me their bots: "Why is this a bot and not an app or a website?" I've been fascinated by the explosion of developer interest and startup activity around chatbots and am pretty bullish on their potential as both a user and an investor, but it's important to take a step back and think about why we're all so focused on conversational interfaces. That means understanding that is often context that determines whether a bot is more useful than an app or website. 

It's undeniable that a huge part of what makes chatbots so attractive is that they promise to make computing more natural by stripping away graphical-user interfaces and instead let us simply ask for what we want. We're not there yet -- and won't be for a while -- but today's chatbots show us a glimmer of that future, one where we can simply speak or write something and the computer will understand what we want and give it to us. 

That gap between what chatbots can do now and what we know they'll be able to do in a few years can be enormously frustrating -- anyone who has tripped up Alexa or Siri by not phrasing a request quite the right way can tell you that. Certainly one of the biggest hindrances for chatbot adoption will be the amount of syntax you need to memorize in order to interact with them. Eventually, advances in natural language processing and AI will get us past all that and to a place where you can ask a computer for almost anything and it will be able to know what you mean. 

Although we're not there yet, today's bots can still be useful despite not having anything resembling true AI. We're already starting to see how a whole host of everyday tasks can be accomplished by chatting with an automated agent. Even if that bot isn't especially intelligent and requires you to employ a bit of syntax in order to interact with it, there's something about being able to have a quick conversation with a chatbot to get something done which can seem sort of magical.

The ease of conversational interfaces might be the primary driver of adoption, but there's something which has been missing from the debate over chatbots vs apps, and that is that the context in which you're trying to do something matters a lot, maybe even more than ease of use. A large part of what makes chatbots so compelling is that conversational interfaces have the unique ability to be integrated into the context we're already in. That's why chatbots make the most sense when the cost to switching contexts is high. Whether it's information, content, or a service, being able to ask for what you want via chat isn't merely about making something easier to do via an app. It's also about making it easier to have that interaction while having the minimal amount of disruption or interruption to whatever it is you're already doing. Because of this, a chatbot doesn't necessarily have to be easier to use than the corresponding app. It just needs to be more convenient to use given the context in which you want to accomplish a given task.

Let me explain what I mean. I have an Amazon Echo in my kitchen. Probably the number one thing I ask for each morning is the weather. Could I just pull my phone out and check the weather there? Sure, but it's much easier when I'm making breakfast to just say "Alexa, what's the weather today?" I don't have to stop what I'm doing and switch modes. Similarly, Slack bots make it easy to do whatever you need to do inside of a collaborative work environment rather than doing it outside and then pulling that information (or whatever it is) back in. Integrating your service with Slack as a bot lowers barriers to adoption because it can be used right inside the conversational flow which the business is already in. 

Chatbots are a bet that we are going to be spending more and more of our time within messaging apps like WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Kik, Telegram, etc and that it will be easier to access the services we want via a bot within those apps than to jump into another app or use the web. This is already proving to be the case in China, where a huge number of WeChat's 650 million users spend an enormous amount of their time within the app. They're not just spending that time chatting with friends, they're also accessing a whole range of services within WeChat itself, including shopping, virtual friends, games, etc. 

This is why Facebook is making such a big push with their forthcoming bot platform for Messenger. What they're rolling out will presumably make it possible for pretty much anyone to offer their content or service within Messenger. But while a lot of that will be the same stuff you can get via an app or via the web, Facebook isn't just wagering that the ease of interacting via a conversational interface will drive uptake of chatbots amongst its 800 million users. Ultimately they're doing this because they believe that the convenience of chatbots will get people to live inside Messenger in the same way that WeChat users live inside that messaging app. It's their way of making an end-run around both iOS and Android as app platforms by bringing all those services within Messenger as chatbots -- and thus onto a platform which Facebook controls. Uptake may be a bit slow as first users get accustomed to interacting with chatbots, but it's not hard to imagine user behavior changing over time, particularly as richer, more app-like UI elements get incorporated into chat platforms that further blur the line between chatbots and apps.

If bots win, it won't simply be because of their ease of use, but by the sheer usefulness of being embedded within the context in which we are already working or conversing, thus saving us the hassle of having to jump into a separate app or website to accomplish what we want done. Ultimately what will get us chatting with them is the convenience of having them there when we need them. You shouldn't have to go out of your way to get what you need from a bot.