Welcome to capitalism, where it is never too early to worry about how something will be monetized. Virtual reality is, at this point, barely a thing, but payment processing is already a concern. This, on the one hand, is what foresight looks like. It is also what blind—or VR-induced—optimism looks like.
China-based e-commerce giant Alibaba demonstrated a new payment service Wednesday that will let you pay for things in virtual reality with just a nod of your head.
“It is very boring to have to take off your goggles for payment,” a technologist working on the project told Reuters. “With this, you will never need to take out your phone.” The new payment system is called VR Pay and is part of Alibaba’s efforts to bring their massive online shopping experience into VR.
I promise this isn’t a promo for the upcoming season of Black Mirror. Then again, reality may just be an illusion so who the hell knows? Anyhow.
Given the significant videogame influence in VR as well as the large-scale corporate backing to many of these endeavors, it was only a matter of time until monetization—specifically, the in-app purchase model—became an issue. This is how basically every backer of VR already works. The goal of in-app purchases, of course, is to remove friction. An eight-step process gives you more chances to back out. As a consumer protection, some opportunities to change your mind are good. Others just make life hard. It’s a complicated balance.
The thing to worry about here is that payment processing by way of a mere nod eliminates virtually all friction. Up to a point, that is a good thing, and convenient. But a system where the whole world that envelopes you can be rigged to induce purchases and where a simple gesture completes that process is a bit scary. The balance of friction and ease is off, and in a way that doesn’t favor consumer protections. The good news for now is that VR is sufficiently clunky that friction lurks around every corner, but that will not always be the case—or at least some people seem to hope. When that frictionless day comes, this precedent will look far less appealing.