A new wave of brash young developers is posing challenges to the products—and the street cred—of the tech giants
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Christopher Nielsen
The line between the virtual and actual just got blurrier. Google Glass is feeding the Internet directly into our eyeballs, and the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset allows us to invite video game characters into our homes. We are, according to approximately 36 trillion online think pieces, on the verge of a new era in how we access the digital world.
It’s no surprise that this brave new world is being ushered in by the likes of Google and Facebook, with the latter paying $2 billion for Oculus this past spring. These are the companies, after all, that changed the way we use the Internet. And yet, there is a growing sense that digital superstars like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg might want to start looking over their shoulders.
The big issue facing the tech giants is that, well, they’re giants. Many users worry that Google and Facebook will mine their data and bombard their virtual worlds with ads. Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft, has said that he is no longer tweaking his game for Oculus Rift because Facebook “creeps me out.” And allied to such concerns, of course, is the all-important question of image.
Google Glass has received wall-to-wall coverage in the mainstream media. That kind of success can be the kiss of death for users in the coveted 15-to-25-year-old age group. Instead, hard-core techies—the “I was talking about that ages ago” crowd—are frothing about products like castAR, 3-D virtual reality glasses that may or may not challenge Oculus Rift on the experience side of things, but are definitely giving it a run for its money in terms of the kids being down with it.
The outfit behind castAR, Technical Illusions, was founded last year by gaming veterans Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson. Tellingly, their Kickstarter-funded prototype was not introduced at a convention with dry ice and a power ballad. It was first shown in May 2013 to geek evangelists at the Bay Area Maker Faire. “I’m a tinkerer myself, so it was refreshing to see something so homemade,” says gaming guru Brian Bruning, who was at the unveiling and who later joined the company. And there is an increasing number of small indie outfits emerging, all of them eager to ride what’s starting to look like an anti-establishment wave.
Johnson and Bruning acknowledge that there has been a groundswell of goodwill for companies like theirs following Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus. But Zuckerberg’s transformation from kid brother to Big Brother isn’t the only thing driving the proliferation of rival products. “We’re seeing this explosion of people creating new devices partly because of the falling cost of commodity components,” Johnson says about the alternatives to Google Glass.
Johnson goes on to add a quick plug for his own product, demonstrating that even a developer who appears on his company website wearing a tattered cowboy hat might not be entirely averse to a spot of marketing. He says castAR represents “the first time anyone has brought a technology of the future to people at an affordable price.” (You can preorder the device and its accessories for $345.)
Despite their cool, scruffy, iconoclastic veneer, these whiz kids will inevitably get sucked into the swirl of money and influence that has already claimed Zuckerberg and Page. In fact, says Evercore analyst Ken Sena, the upstarts are playing into their larger rivals’ hands. “They may represent a backlash against big companies. Everybody loves an underdog, but the big players make most of their money from software,” Sena says. “Google is not in the glasses-making business. The more competing devices that come along, the more opportunities the major players will have to sell their software.”
This is a good point, but, again, it may not be the central one. The worry for Google and Facebook isn’t that these rival products will pick pennies from their pockets; the worst-case scenario, the thing that may be causing peptic twinges in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, is the prospect of losing the next generation of users. The fear is that the new kids will cause the old guard’s dreaded descent into irrelevance—in other words, that they will do to Zuckerberg what Zuckerberg did to MySpace.
Even castAR’s Bruning allows that his firm isn’t immune to the apparently bottomless appetite among tech consumers for what might be termed The Next Small Thing. “We’re sexy now,” Bruning says, “but we all know how fickle the great unwashed can be.”
Berlin-based editor and writer Boyd Farrow descended into irrelevance a while ago, but is hoping to rise to the status of mere obscurity.