The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Virtual Reality
When people try out VR for the first time, they not only see the virtual world displayed in their headset, but also in their mind they see a glimpse of what the future could look like. I first tried one out about a year ago, and was proudly told by the developer that VR was going to be as big a game-changer as the internet.
Excitement was bolstered by the much anticipated release of Oculus Rift, a VR headset that started life as a Kickstarter campaign back in 2012 before being bought by Facebook for $2billion two years later. It was a tech gold rush, and by the end of 2016, Google, Sony, Samsung and HTC had all brought out their own headsets.
Last year, VR was everywhere. Brands were racing to do something and anything to put their name to it. If there competitors were doing something with VR, or might be doing it soon, then so would they.
For some brands, VR made much more sense than others. For example, travel companies put it to good use in ads like this, as the ability to transport the audience to another world clearly benefits their key selling point.
But in other cases, such as this advert for Oreo, VR didn’t support the brand or its message in any way. If anything, it distracted from the brand.
Comparisons to 3D movies began to spring up as people became less impressed by the tech and started to question if it was anything more than an unnecessary gimmick.
If the new age of VR wasn’t fully living up to the hype, then perhaps it would fare better in entertainment purely for entertainment’s sake. In theory, the immersive promise of the technology marries perfectly to what we seek from entertainment: distraction, excitement, escapism, awe, etc.
In practice, at least at the moment, it’s not been that simple. The main hurdle has been cost. Hardware is expensive, which creates a chicken and egg dilemma. Consumers are unwilling to invest because it’s still a fledgling and relatively sparse technology. Companies are nervous to invest because there aren’t enough customers.
Products like Google Cardboard tried to circumvent the price problem, marketing DIY-style headsets for under £20. The problem with this, to quote Resh Sidhu from visual effects company Framestore, is that “good VR is not cheap, and cheap VR is not good”. These rudimentary alternatives do not show VR at its best, and are unlikely to propel a VR revolution.
High-end headsets have difficulties too. Pixilation will occur unless the screens are ultra-HD, and then you need enormous processing power to avoid lag. Most VR game reviews describe the experience as nauseating, and generally prefer the games in their original format.
Look to the future
We’re still a long way off the seamless and limitless world of VR that you see in the movies. However, in certain sectors and professions, Virtual Reality has been integrated into the norm for a while.
Designers and architects will often use VR to visualise a project. Virtual simulations are part of many doctors’ and engineers’ training, and educators are working out how to best implement the technology into primary and secondary classrooms.
In entertainment, the most promising gains are being made by the less ambitious projects, such as Netflix’s VR app that creates a screen slightly larger than your field of vision (like and IMAX cinema). If VR is to become part of every household, then it will be baby steps that get it there, with every new product or service having to make a genuine improvement to the user experience.
Look at Augmented Reality. Google Glass promised the world and flopped catastrophically. Snapchat and Instagram use AR filters as nothing more than fun bonuses, and have been incredibly successful.
Headsets will get cheaper. Processing power will get better. VR will get bigger and bigger, but it will grow organically. Developers are going to need a lot of determination to see it really take off in the mainstream, just like the ostrich in that Samsung’s advert.