Virtual Reality (VR) technologies are the latest to be hyped to completely change how we view and interact with media, forecast to generate $30 billion by 2020. Having seen some of the product demos on the market, I can understand the excitement, but I'm unconvinced by the current framing of VR as the future of media. Rather than being an extra feature of an existing media, I think that VR's potential is to create an entirely new experience: one that is personal, intimate and controllable.
The promise of VR
Let's start at the beginning: when we talk about VR today, we're referring to a headset that you wear like a pair of goggles, in which you have a screen. Typically, the view in the headset responds to you turning your head in real life, so you are immersed in a world that you can look around and explore.
As VR technologies are a convergence of cinema and gaming, there is a broad spectrum of how much control you have. In more gaming-derived VR, you can move around an interactive world, whereas at the other end of the scale it's more like having a film played to you, but allowing you to look around at the things that catch your interest.
The experience is very different to anything else because making the VR screen your only visual input tricks your brain into imagining that you really are in that visual world, oddly enough, this means you actually end up thinking that your virtual feet in the VR belong to you, for example. Because of this extra immersion, it's not unusual to see people experiencing VR far more vividly than they would a PC game or film in any cinema. When you're not at work, take a look at this video of Youtube star Hank Green experiencing the Oculus Rift for a good example.
This raises some very interesting possibilities, but also some fundamental constraints. Do you, as the media creator, want to create a roller coaster, exciting but the same every time, or almost a choose-your-own-adventure story which your audience will each experience slightly differently to each other and each time?
A simple example was demonstrated by Montreal-based studio Felix and Paul at Sundance this year, where they had created a VR short which put you into a scene from Wild. The difference was that the appearance and dialogue of a character was entirely dependent on whether you as the invisible viewer turned you head when they started speaking. This means that two people could watch the same media but have seen something very different.
Lost, another VR short from Sundance, takes this idea a step further. "Lost", created by Story Studio, an ex-Pixar team at Oculus, is an entirely computer-animated piece which explores how to make a narrative flow when the audience can look away at any time. Lost encourages you to take the time you need to look around and be curious, as some story elements wait for you to look at them before acting. As a result, the story can play out in anything from three to ten minutes, with the viewer influencing the pacing.
A screen (very) near you?
The possibilities of VR are fascinating and I believe that the technology is reaching the point where it could become a viable consumer product, but I remain unconvinced that the products are going to do what the film industry wants. VR is being promoted as the future of film because the film studios remain desperate for "the next big thing", in the wake of the last big flop, 3D. Of course I only pretend to have a working crystal ball but I think that VR cinema has the same limited appeal.
The appeal of any media is the social element of watching and sharing with friends, and this isn't really enhanced by sitting with your own little screen strapped to your face so you can't see anything else. Wearing 3D glasses was merely inconvenient and uncomfortable, whereas wearing today's VR goggles in the cinema could be quite an intimidating experience, as you would be entirely unable to see around you. Equally, there seems to be little point in sitting in a cinema, in front of a large screen that you can't actually see.
Likewise, I'm not sure that it's going to replace TV in the home, because VR has all the problems 3D had, and more. We looked at 3D TV and asked why we would put on awkward glasses to watch TV, but with VR it's not just glasses, it's a full headset that cuts you off from everyone else. I think that in order to understand how VR can work, we need to accept that its incredible immersion comes at the cost of cutting off the outside world like nothing else. Of course, that's an important part of immersion, but it limits what's acceptable at home.
This is why I think that VR could become a new form of entertainment, rather than an "upgrade" to what we have today. Part of the fun of media is discussing it with friends afterwards, and media where your own reactions actually affect what you experience could make it even more enjoyable to discuss. This is supported by Story Studio's Saschka Unseld who found that a story can't be cut the same way for film and VR, and that VR is all about creating quiet moments to maximise the impact of intense ones, as VR is so much more immersive. Getting the right content is going to be key, but so will creating a way of consuming this new media that people will accept.
Gaming is a different matter: the prospect of far more immersive gaming is likely to strongly appeal, and while different gaming genres would employ it differently, it's easy enough to imagine VR becoming popular. Gaming is already generally solitary, with increasing levels of social sharing happening online, where VR can actually make your friends feel more present. Also, gamers are already looking for immersive experiences so they wouldn't need to learn and adapt to a new behaviour like cinema or home TV audiences.
I'm going to finish with a "watch this space" as I want to explore the prospects for VR in the enterprise in a follow-up to this blog. So far, although VR is a fascinating technology, we're still a long way from having a viable broad-based consumer business, but the challenge is around creating the right content. The enterprise creates entirely new challenges.