More than one tech commentator hailed 2016 as "the year of VR". But will 2017 be the year VR goes too far?
Originally developed as a new way to play video games, virtual reality has now broadened its horizons into cinema, advertising, communication, journalism and even social media, and VR experiences are becoming so immersive that soon we may never need to take off our headsets again.
But there is a risk that comes with all this progress. With VR expanding into so many different areas at once, and with tech developers continually improving VR technology, some of the most important aspects of nurturing a new medium may be falling by the wayside. So is VR going too far?
VR is multi-sensory - and scarily realistic
As VR headsets have become more affordable over the past few years, more production companies have begun to dedicate themselves solely to creating VR experiences, often pushing the boundaries of the medium.
UK-based production company Rewind made a VR experience for the BBC entitled "Home: A Spacewalk" which realistically simulates an astronaut's experience leaving their spacecraft. The experience uses a heart monitor and a microphone to feed the sound of the user's own heartrate and breathing into the experience, heightening the tension. But there are some VR developers focusing more on the innovation, and less on the experience, essentially creating hardware for the sake of hardware.
Multi-sensory VR goes rogue
The FeelReal peripheral is one example of hardware that exists simply for its own sake, currently adding very little to the VR experience. Attaching to all of the popular VR headsets, the FeelReal covers the user's nose, mouth and cheeks, and comes equipped with a microphone, water mist generators, hot air generators, and best of all an "odor generator".
The parallels between the notorious Smell-O-Vision devices of the 1950s are too strong to ignore, and even though the FeelReal boasts a wide range of generable scents (including "Ocean", "Metal" and "Powder", but sadly not "New Car Smell") it is likely to join the ranks of failed attempts to revive Smell-O-Vision's dream.
Alongside this olfactory Oculus accessory, a University of Singapore scientist is working a different VR peripheral that simulates both flavours and weather. Using electrodes and clip-on fans, Nimesha Ranasinghe's device promises "the ultimate VR experience," but will sensory simulation really make for a better time in VR?
Is this overreaching bad for the VR industry?
If this technology works, it will certainly be impressive, but may simply be a distraction from what is really important in nurturing this new medium. Now VR is better than it ever has been in terms of realism, those in the industry should focus on mastering the medium in its current form before they push it any further.
This is the opinion of Oculus Story Studio technical developer Matt Planck. Formerly of Pixar, Planck argues that the real way to move the medium forward is to focus on making small, refined experiences and building a new visual vocabulary. "People are making less-compelling experiences," Planck says, "because they're reaching too far."
Developers focusing on making VR experiences more "realistic" are misguided. Though it is important to continually improve and define the technology that brings it to us, what VR developers need to do right now is to focus on storytelling, and on figuring out how to make the medium resonate with its users. No matter how accurate the smells, tastes or weather, VR experiences need artistry to truly connect.
As self-proclaimed "immersive storyteller" Chris Milk says, VR has the potential to become "the ultimate empathy machine." By putting viewers into other people's shoes, and bringing them closer than ever to worlds different from their own, VR could do far more than create "accurate", odorous environments.
To compare the medium to cinema, VR is currently at the equivalent point in its history as film was when Arrival of a Train at Vincennes Station hit theatres. It'll be a long time before we see the VR Citizen Kane. But we will get there, as long as a thirst for technological development does not get in the way of figuring the best way to tell stories in a virtual space.