If you take a look at the recently released Elsewhere VR headset, you’ll see a slender set of Google Cardboard-style frames and an iOS app that adds 3D depth to flat images or video. If you turn your attention to the website or press release, you’ll see a "breakthrough in perception" that will "upend the augmented/virtual reality market" and provide "the watershed moment when VR goes mass-market." One of these things is a good idea. The other is everything wrong with how we talk about VR.
Elsewhere’s app is based on a technology that instantly converts any picture or video — including your phone’s live camera feed — into stereoscopic 3D, when watched through a simple viewer that’s sold with the app. You can either load images and video directly to your phone, look at a curated feed of material (company co-founders Wendellen Li and Aza Raskin are partial to fractal videos), or see a 3D version of anything your phone’s camera captures. Raskin and Li won’t describe exactly how it works, but it seems to handle the transformation smoothly. Unlike a 360-degree video or VR game, though, the result is still a square projected in front of you, not a full world that you can look around in. It’s like a very advanced version of the Victorian stereoscope, a $50 toy that I could absolutely see buying for a kid just to watch them walk around turning posters and TV screens into 3D dioramas.
In any other context, Elsewhere is a little nonsensical. For one thing, the version I tried didn’t support watching YouTube or Netflix videos directly in iOS. So to see one in 3D, you’d have to play it on your computer, then watch through the camera of your phone, while holding the phone up to your face in a headset. That’s not a product, that’s a gag in a New Yorker comic about millennials. Even when you’re watching native video, it would be tough to sit through a movie holding your headset the whole time, compared to sitting back in front of a 3D TV. And while visual depth in a photo or movie is nice, it isn’t a substitute for immersive VR.
In one particularly trippy-sounding application, Elsewhere lets you point your camera at the real world to make it somehow more 3D — or at least "crisper, clearer, more detailed, and somehow closer to you." This is almost literally a Google April Fools’ joke, but it would have been great, if it hadn’t largely felt like normal vision. Wired had good results, and sometimes things looked subtly deeper to me. But the main effect was to remind me that our mental processing of 3D space is generally awesome. Seriously, go look in a mirror right now! I just did. It’s wild.
So ultimately, what you get with Elsewhere is a neat diversion and a decent-looking mobile headset, at a price that’s high (but not outlandish) for either of those categories. It does something that I haven’t seen in this form before, with a system that’s polished enough to easily enjoy. I wish I could let it go with that praise.
But virtual reality has spent years dealing with inflated expectations, an almost religious reverence for an imperfect technology, and media coverage that’s often oversimplified or sensational. Not only does this set people up for a letdown when VR isn’t as astonishing as they hoped, it creates an eye-rolling backlash that’s already present in parts of the tech and gaming community. Even if VR and 3D isn’t totally mainstream tech, it’s too established for startups to sell new products with misleading, grandiose promises. If you have a good thing going, like cool stereoscopic software, just tell me about it. Not everything has to change the world.