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Time Magazine’s VR cover is so horrible it almost ruins VR

Virtual reality is coming — and it’s coming fast — but there are still plenty of barriers holding it back from mainstream acceptance. No matter how many breathless stories we post about the awesome experiences delivered by the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, or Microsoft Hololens, writers never do the tech justice. To really get this new wave of VR, to truly appreciate it, you need to strap a headset on your face, open your eyes, and see what it’s all about.

But if this image pops up, flush your eyes out with water and run to the nearest E.R.

(Credit: Time Magazine)
(Credit: Time Magazine)

That’s the August 17 cover of Time Magazine. Inside this issue are a handful of stories about VR, interviews with the big creative names, and insight into how it all works.

But you won’t get that far, because unless you’re related to Oculus founder Palmer Luckey (he’s the guy in the blue shirt), you will see this cover and be overcome with an upsetting blend of sadness, anger, amusement, confusion, and disgust. Also maybe you’ll be relaxed, because that looks like a nice beach.

Let’s start there. Is Palmer actually squat-leaping in the sand? If so, why is he wearing a headset? He’s already at the beach! Maybe he’s using his Rift while waiting for someone to join him on the weirdly empty shore, though that’s confusing because there’s a cord trailing off to the right. What’s that plugged into? This?

And why are his arms doing that? Is he pretending to fly? That’s not really how VR works, a fact that Palmer himself should know since he invented the Rift headset. Bare feet? Maybe he’s at the beach after all, though why is he wearing jeans? At least roll up the cuffs, man.

Perhaps this is an indictment of VR's escapism. He's at the beach, but he doesnt even notice because he's too busy playing Flappy Bird VR.

I’ve stared at this thing for a half-hour and I’m still mystified that both Time and Oculus owner Facebook were cool using this image to promote VR to a national mainstream audience (for reference, here’s Palmer on the January 2015 cover of Forbes). And everyone else seems to be flabbergasted, too. Here’s how the magazine’s cover has fared on Twitter (spoiler: not well):

It wasn't safe from the meme treatment, either.

Once you get past the cover, however, things only get worse. Here’s how Time describes their cover star:

Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift, is not your typical nerd…
He’s cheery and talks in normal sentences that are easy to understand. He was homeschooled, and though he did drop out of college, it was California State University, Long Beach, where he was majoring not in computer science but in journalism. He prefers shorts, and his feet are black because he doesn’t like wearing shoes, even outdoors. He doesn’t look like a guy who played Dungeons & Dragons so much as a character in Dungeons & Dragons. He’s a nerd from a different century, working on the problems of a different century.

“He’s cheery and talks in normal sentences that are easy to understand.” What year is it, 1983? Did we learn nothing from Revenge of the Nerds 2? Even Ogre turned out to be a nerd. Way to immediately reduce the (admittedly young) CEO of a game-changing tech company valued at $2 billion to a dorky, outdated stereotype.

I don't mean to take shots at Time's editorial department. I don't know author Joel Stein and don't count myself as an avid reader of the magazine. But I can't help but wonder how, in this day and age, this condescending tone and weak portrait of a 'typical nerd' is still okay. Nerds and geeks and college dropouts run the show these days. Comic books dominate Hollywood. Vin Diesel founded a video game company. We are legion. Stop pretending we all talk like Francis.

Some of my peers are convinced this cover marks the End of Times for the nascent VR movement, and while it’s easy to see why roughly 95% of Twitter is freaking out, I’m guessing this will eventually blow over. The people currently most interested in VR aren’t getting their info from Time, and those new to the tech aren’t going to write it off based on one crappy photoshoot. But it sure doesn’t help.

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