WTF is VR? The 3 I's of Virtual Reality

01/08/2016 10:30 | Updated 01 August 2016

Sometimes it's easier to explain a thing by first stating what it isn't. This is arguably one of those times.

Virtual Reality is NOT Film or Television. Nor is it merely a subset, or the evolution, of 'Gaming'.

In fact, VR is not a replacement anything. And it's certainly not the gladiatorial slaughter of any media that has come before it.

"VR is going to kill television as we know it." No, it's not.

"VR is going to ring the death knell of Cinema! Mark my words, we'll all be staying home wearing our VR headsets, dangling from frictionless harnesses (pre anti-Grav tanks), exploring the outer reaches of cyberspace." Hugely unlikely.

As a consequence of VR, Cinema and TV will not be lying dead on the floor (next to the 'Radio Star' as killed by video). Radio never actually died and VR is not forcing us into a game of Media Cluedo.

Having addressed the 'not', let's get to the 'what it is'. What is VR?

VR is an 'and', an 'addition'.

Cinema, TV, Press, Radio, Gaming, Outdoor, Online... and now VR. VR is Darwin visiting Galapagos in 1835, sketch book in hand before exclaiming, "What the fuck?! This is something new, hand me my HB pencil."

VR is a new sequencing of zeros and ones in the digital genome, and what's most fascinating is not the technology itself (which is often the easier fixation), but instead the speculated creative opportunities and viewer experiences it might afford.

After TV, Film, Online (Video) and Gaming, VR is a Fifth Way in audio-visual experience, with a very different set of parameters around participation, role-play and immersion. And as one would expect of a new, fifth path, VR is as yet virtually untraveled.

In response to the WTF question, let us consider "The 3 I's" of VR. First up:

I for... 'Immersive'

'Immersive' is a word that's reflexively applied to the VR experience, and the reflex is fair: because VR is immersive. It is like putting on a pair of swimming goggles and jumping in the deep end, where in an instant, you are immersed. Blink: and your world has changed. A new not-yet-normal is all around you, left, right, up, down.

Within only a few additional blinks, it's easy to realise the viewer experience has few points of previous reference. This content landscape is distinctly "New", but where you can't help but think 'Training Simulations' are the most obvious application - and not just ones where you imagine seeing enemy combatants through night scopes. An early pioneer was this 2014 'Wear the Rose' execution funded by sponsor O2, which affords the viewer the experience of training with the England Rugby team. It's somewhere around 2 minutes in, on the second or third set piece, that you start to genuinely develop a sense of what being a squad member on a training day feels like.

Now for I number two:

I for... 'Intimate'

The 'Silver Screen', particularly in its larger IMAX formats, has a kind of 'Shock & Awe' effect: scale, grandeur, spectacle of a spectacular scale. Cinema's knock-out' punch potential has always been its inherent 'Bigness'.

VR is a different beast all together, potentially even the opposite of cinema, in that VR feels intimate.

An early impression is that the VR opportunity lies in striking a very different kind of rapport with audiences.

Watch Mini's 'Backwater' on a VR headset, and it's not the warehouse fight scene in super slo-mo that leaves the strongest impression, but rather the feeling (at the 4 minute mark) of simply sitting in the back seat, the two protagonists in their seats in front. Perhaps unintentional, but you feel slightly unsure as to whether you're an invited part of the moment or not. You are, by awkward definition, taking the role of voyeur.

Interestingly Mini describes 'Backwater' as a "cinematic virtual reality experience". One suspects this pairing of descriptors will prove itself a blind alley in the making of exceptional VR content.

Conversely, create the right narrative construct with the 'right smallness of scene and space', and VR may feel not just intimate, but voyeuristic. For content-makers, a technology that can engross and unsettle audiences in whole new ways is a seriously exciting proposition.

In purely narrative terms, VR will allow us to watch and witness like never before. For First Person 'participation', there will always be gaming, but VR will bring about a new level of narrative immersion, not fully participative, but where like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass, we are able to step though the Fourth Wall and effectively be within the story.

I for... 'I'

Author Adam Goldberg once described Twitter (and its motivating appeal) as "the marriage of full-tilt narcissism and full-tilt voyeurism finally colliding in 140 characters."

Indeed Social Media per se succeeds because it creates an outlet for many of our needs relating to 'self'. Think: Self-expression; self-fulfilment; self-documentation.

It is however naive to say that we're more self-obsessed or motivated by self-interest than we were, say, 10 or 20 years ago. Self-interest sits at the very heart of the human condition. Always has, always will. Apple cleverly worked it when they rolled out a range of products all starting with an i prefix.

The self, 'I', is an important factor in understanding VR and the role it will come to play in our lives.

Though where Twitter has become a leitmotif to our abridged ideas and sound-bite attention spans, one can imagine VR providing expansive multi-sensorial explorations in escapism and wish-fulfilment.

In the absence of exclusive real-life physical world experiences - say standing ready to receive serve behind the baseline of Wimbledon's Centre Court - VR will digitally afford viewers a diluted taste of the real thing. It is a medium for First Person wonder, for making the otherwise elusive possible by digital proxy. Never stood on the first tee of Augusta on a sunny morning? Now possible: at least in visual facsimile with some pre-recorded binaural backup.

And then working that in reverse, consider the moments where you did actually physically experience something, and happened to record it in 360.

Press 'Record' when you ride a zip line or negotiate a mogul field, and with VR our self-documentation allows for the channelling memories on a level incredibly close to reliving.

Experience, Entertain, Escape

All 'content', whatever the medium, whatever the technology, must reward its audience. All content must answer our call for new experiences, entertainment and escapism. What's thrilling is that VR has the potential to answer that call in ways that feel unique. VR represents new ways for us to experience "Show-Tell-Feel". For the Story-tellers, the Experience Designers and even the Home Video Makers, VR is the new space to watch, where we all have the luxury of turning our head in any direction we choose.

More than twenty years ago, in the pursuit of popcorn sales, movies like Strange Days and The Lawnmower Man fictionally speculated on a world where VR was possible. Today those speculations feel both wonderfully melodramatic and borderline dated - but the reality is that VR technology is now with us, and will be part of our viewing and experiential future. What we do creatively with that open-ended space marked 'Tomorrow' is, as ever, up to us.


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