By: Baldwin Cunningham, VP of Strategy, Brit + Co
VR is one of those technologies that lends itself to epic predictions. It’s been a staple of Sci-Fi and dystopian fiction for decades and it’s easy to get swept up in the mind-boggling array of possibilities. In the not-so-distant future, VR will enable people to stroll along the Champs-Élysées or climb Mount Everest; attend college; simulate emergency-response scenarios, like earthquakes or problems with a nuclear reactor; overcome their fears through exposure therapy; and train for high-profile jobs, like being a surgeon—all from their home.
While the full spectrum of these possibilities will someday be within reach, we are still in the early days of VR’s evolution towards the mainstream. Certain content areas in VR will “pop” before others.
At the moment, the industry experiencing the most advances in VR is gaming. This makes sense for a number of reasons. For one thing, gaming has always existed on the vanguard of technology, pushing forward developments in areas like computing power, graphics capabilities, and motion trackers. In addition, gaming is all about creating virtual worlds that engross their players. The objectives of VR—to transport people to other worlds—and gaming are closely aligned. And gaming companies are already thinking about issues that are relevant to VR, like avatars, immersion and presence.
Social media, of course, is also on the frontier of VR content, as evidenced by Facebook’s 2014 acquisition of Oculus for $2 billion. Oculus started out bringing VR to gaming, but Mark Zuckerberg saw other possibilities. At Oculus Connect in October 2016, the company demoed Facebook VR, which brought users together in virtual environments to play games, chat, and hang out through their avatars.
News media is another area. In 2015, The New York Times began experimenting with Virtual Reality with Google Cardboard. The Times delivered the headsets to subscribers and prompted them to download the corresponding app. They could then experience news stories, such as articles about the exploration of Pluto, Iraqi forces fighting ISIS, or children who are caught in the global refugee crisis, through the headsets.
And of course, there is entertainment. VR movies are not that far away. In fact, Netflix recently released a VR app that immerses viewers in what they are watching and VR movies are cropping up at prestigious film festivals, like Sundance. At Sundance 2017, a 40-minute film called Miyubi claimed to be “possibly the longest virtual reality movie ever made.” The film, set in the 1980s, puts viewers in the body of a Japanese robot who is given to an American family as a present.
It’s no coincidence that each of these applications for VR are rooted heavily in storytelling. However, to continue pushing VR forward and to reach a mass scale, the industry still has a long way to go, and there are a number of things it will take to get us there, beyond the technology itself. The first is great content producers, who can reimagine how we experience things. It’s not enough to simply take storylines and morph them into VR experiences. The creative processes and considerations are linked, but different. More great content producers will lead to more content, which is also an important driver of VR’s future. Right now, the cost of producing VR content is much higher than other mediums, and that limits the amount of content that is out there, limited VR’s scale. Another challenge is accessibility. You currently need a headset device to experience VR. These range from expensive head-displays to cheap cardboard boxes, but for VR to achieve scale, these headsets need to reach more people.
The most revolutionary elements of VR’s future go beyond media. VR will change how we shop. Think about going into a Home Depot to find paint and having the capacity to instantly visualize the exact replica of your home. Or as mentioned above, to learn to perform surgery in a virtual setting, instead of on a cadaver, or to sit courtside at a basketball game without leaving your couch. The opportunities are endless and there are strong players working hard right now to shape the space. The question that remains is, how long it will take for VR to become as big as other distribution formats?