Building a startup is hard, and brutal, and often boring. As Elon Musk put it: “Being an entrepreneur is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss.” So it makes perfect sense that Dinesh and Gilfoyle, when faced with the scut work of solving Pied Piper’s hard technical problems for real paying customers outside the Valley bubble, would prefer to blow it all off and spend a week at Keenan Feldspar’s house, playing with his VR prototype.
Their reaction to Feldspar’s demo perfectly captures the tech world’s fascination with VR. The gang gushes over the ability to just walk around and look at things in a demo: “This technology will change the world!” But Monica later calls his tech out as hopelessly unscalable "dogshit." It’s still hard to find a compelling mainstream use case for the technology. And even with the help of technology like Richard’s compression algorithm, the VR experience can still be—to use the technical term—a little barfy. It appears destined, for now, to live on our phones as augmented or “mixed” reality. Gilfoyle correctly notes that “the possibilities of your consequence-free reality are darkly promising,” but otherwise VR is the wave of the future… and it looks like it will be for a little while longer.
VR is a perfect technology for the tech mindset—it gives great demo, it’s easy to make the logical leaps required to believe it as a game-changer, so its mainstream success is perpetually just a couple years into the future. It’s also appealing to tech types for the same reasons computers themselves are appealing: computers are machines that do precisely what you tell them to do. (If there’s a bug in your code, it’s because you told the computer to do the wrong thing.) Who wouldn’t want reality to function the exact same way?
Some great work gets done during silly bubbles, though. The first dot-com bubble looked pretty stupid from the outside, too—Webvan was a Web 1.0 punchline, but it laid the groundwork for AmazonFresh. VR hardware quality has been shoved forward a couple feet by the current round of investment. Virtual worlds like Second Life—which existed and thrived outside the current VR bubble - are working out the aesthetic, social and commercial kinks. And the willingness to cast the venture funding far and wide has subsidized advances in content and user interfaces that will come in handy when the magic moment strikes. (I suspect it will be when HoloLens works as well as Magic Leap claims it does, and the whole rig fits on the bridge of your glasses, projects directly onto your retinas, and costs less than $200.)
So the fate of Feldspar’s VR technology, for now, is to be acquired by Jack Barker as a hail-Mary attempt to add some sizzle to his upcoming HooliCon keynote. (I won’t say much here about tech CEOs’ obsession with their keynote speeches, or the delightful absurdity of large tech conferences, because Dan Lyons already said everything great about those things in his chapter on visiting Dreamforce in “Disrupted.” Go read that.)]
Barker wants this technology because he desperately craves what Keenan Feldspar was born with—aside from, as Erlich says, “a golden horseshoe up his ass": a reality distortion field. Like its most famous practitioner Steve Jobs, Feldspar has the charisma to convince otherwise reasonable people to believe in absurdly ambitious visions and do the work to make them real. As Dinesh says to Richard, “Everything Keenan touches turns to gold, and you… are different than that.” There’s nothing funnier than tech executives who think they have a reality distortion field, or try way too hard to will one into existence. On the show, it’s Gavin Belson reciting deadpan facts about standards compliance and being called “the greatest showman the tech world has ever seen.”
This makes Feldspar’s experience in the tech world markedly different from most entrepreneurs. He’s accustomed to just invoking the field and getting what he wants, and he behaves like a befuddled toddler when it doesn’t work. He admits to Richard that he’s well aware of the field and its effects—many tech-world types aren’t - but that won’t stop him from enjoying life in the bubble. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” says Richard, “because this can be a tough business."
Matt Corwine is a writer, tech worker and expat Seattlite in Brooklyn. This is his third tech bubble.