The Coffee Shop Test and VR

Man sips cup at coffee shop with book and laptop.
Spot the four technologies that pass the coffee shop test.
Photo by Chris Benson

The coffee shop test is my way of evaluating a new technology with one simple question:

Could I use this device at a coffee shop?

That is: as a normal social person, would I use it at a coffee shop during business hours when there are other people around? The test came up when I was discussing virtual reality (VR) technology adoption, but it’s a great quick test for evaluating the market potential of any new technology.

It’s a simple test. For example, an old school landline phone can’t be brought to a coffee shop, but a cell phone can. That means there are many more opportunities to use the cell phone than the landline.

You can bring a dictionary to the coffee shop, but not an entire encyclopedia. Nintendo’s 3DS is coffee-shop friendly, whereas a 3D TV is not. You might discreetly put on lipstick at the coffee shop, whereas using a hair drier would not be OK. Anything sexual, like condoms or vibrators, while portable, don’t exactly meet the social appropriateness threshold.

Of course, it’s not simply pass/fail. For example, you could strictly speaking bring your iMac to the coffee shop and try to plug it in, but it’s a very awkward choice. Smartphones and tablets are more coffee shop-friendly than laptops, but laptops are still amazing coffee shop devices.

It’s not always clear what’s more coffee shop friendly. For example, a smart watch or a laptop? Watches are easy to transport, but you could do more with the laptop.

Value added is a key component. It’s not enough that technically you could use the device. You could use a coach’s stopwatch, but what would you use it for? You could bring a milk frother, but for what purpose other than insulting the barista? (Actually, that could be hilarious.)

To win at the coffee shop test, the product needs to be something where you’d say “I think I’ll head over the the coffee shop and do some X for a bit” for some X.

What does it measure?

Stickiness. It’s about how habitual the technology can become. The success of a new technology often depends on how much it can become a daily habit for users. The TwitFace social media, as I like to call them — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat — became addictive because they managed offer a benefit that could be enjoyed many times in a day, and that was only possible because there were few limits on when or where you could post from. Today, kids post dance videos to Tiktok from their high school bathrooms. That’s how easy it is.

Underneath that, you have the smartphone, one of the most coffee shop-friendly devices, and therefore the most essential and habitual in today’s world.

Why the coffee shop matters

The coffee shop is a good proxy for being out in public in all the different spaces. Coffee shops are an interesting third space because people use them for such a variety of purposes. You can have a group of friends chatting at one table, someone reading a good book at the next, another person finishing work on a deadline, and then a work meeting at another table. Anything that’s OK to do at a coffee shop will be possible at the maximum number of places.

That passing a number of important subtests:

  • Portability — Anything you want to use in a coffee shop, you have to bring with you, so it implies ease of portability. Not only that, but coffee shops are frequently a mid-point stop between two other places, such as grabbing a coffee before work or school.
  • Social Spaces — Coffee shops are public and typically full of people, which limits what most people will feel comfortable doing in them.
  • Mixed Use — Since people do a mix of work, socializing and recreation, it limits what’s acceptable compared to a dedicated social space, like a bar, or a dedicated work space.

Man in technology lab wearing VR headset turns to the camera

VR Needs to Be Coffee-Shop Friendly

John Carmack mentioned stickyness a few times in his keynote speech at Oculus Connect in 2019: that is, the challenge of user retention in VR. VR is exciting at first but most users quickly lose interest. A lot of the obstacles to user retention are technological: better screen resolutions, tracking and responsiveness, for example, to enhance immersion and ensure fewer people feel sick after using VR for a while. Similarly, the weight and balance of the headsets matters for making the experience comfortable. All of those technological problems do need to be solved.

But those are just impediments to be removed. It’s also about whether VR applications can offer added value, daily.

VR can only become habitual when there’s some valid, value-added experience that you can have while sitting in a coffee shop. Otherwise it’s what we can compare to porn: something best done when you’re alone at home in your living room or bedroom. In fact VR has already come to porn, not surprisingly considering that the adult entertainment industry has consistently jumped on new technologies and often driven their progress. But porn alone can’t make VR mainstream. In fact, if VR somehow became too associated with porn, it could carry a stigma: “Then we came back to my place, and to my horror I’d left my VR headset on the coffee table. Will she think I’m some kind of sex freak?” Not the best connotation.

To achieve massive, ubiquitous adoption, VR needs to pass the coffee shop test.

Even today, we can see some legit coffee shop applications down the road, such as watching a movie or YouTube video on a massive screen, playing games that don’t require full-body movement, or sitting down and coding on three giant virtual monitors, even though you only showed up to the coffee shop with a pair of glasses and your phone.

Of course, the headsets would have to get much smaller for people to feel comfortable in a coffee shop.

But the key is that there are three main use categories for technology like VR, and only one of them has the power to become massively habitual:

  1. Business: Anything you would do at work. Engineers might spend hours building things inside VR, and real estate agents might bring clients to the office to start with a virtual tour of a dozen properties before even bothering to set foot physically in any of them. These business uses have been steadily growing, and VR business applications are likely a big market.
  2. Home entertainment: The way you’d use a big screen TV, or a video game console. These uses dominate the space they’re in, even more so for VR than watching movies or playing games in physical space. For many VR enthusiasts this is the holy grail: creating the full illusion of being in a completely different reality. At the extremes this might mean special haptic suits that give the illusion that you’re actually touching virtual objects, and omnidirectional treadmills that let you “walk” places while staying in the same physical space.
  3. The coffee shop experience: The things you can do everywhere.

All three of those uses have the potential to open up massive new markets and birth new industries, but only one of them has the potential to be the addictive, essential technology that people can’t live without, and that’s the coffee shop case.

The coffee shop test is also why Assisted Reality (AR) technologies might have a better chance of hitting viral adoption first. VR and AR are intertwined; the main difference is that AR doesn’t require you to inhabit a completely different virtual world. Putting on a VR headset shuts you out of the real world, whereas AR would let you put up a massive 3-monitor setup in the coffee shop, while still being able to see the people around you.

VR and AR may be starting to merge in any case. It’s become clear that simply for safety reasons, a VR headset that’s aware of the real world actually makes for a better experience. By matching the limits of the virtual world to the obstacles in the real world — such as walls, lamps, and couches — the experience is both safer and more immersive. For example, if you have a lightsaber dueling game that scans your room’s walls and real furniture, and transforms them into parts of the in-game spaceship environment, you get greater mobility and immersion than if you simply blocked off a smaller area.

The final issue for VR, as opposed to AR, is how you interact in a space. A VR app that expects you to walk around in a virtual world simply can’t work in the coffee shop, or on an airplane, etc., so coffee shop apps either need to keep the user stationery, or offer another way to move around. The other aspect of interaction is less clear: hand movements. It’s far more natural in VR to use your actual hands for things, than to press buttons on a controller. If you sat in a coffee shop with a VR headset on, waving your hands wildly, possibly even hitting nearby people, it would be a problem. But that’s today. We got used to people staring at their smartphones, or walking down the street seemingly talking to nobody; could we get used to people moving their hands around in public? Maybe.

The combination of these hardware and software technologies could be what gets us past the VR coffee shop test. Smaller, more comfortable headsets would be more realistic to wear in a coffee shop. And if it’s possible for the headset to selectively bring in some elements of the physical world while still immersing the user in a virtual one, VR could finally pass the coffee shop test.

Photo by Christian Fregnan

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