“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page last year when he announced his company had purchased Oculus VR, the world leader in virtual reality technology.
“Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home,” he added.
Although Zuckerberg hasn’t officially announced a long-term plan for Oculus VR, his intentions are clear; by purchasing the company he wants to bring VR to the masses and make it commonplace in everyday life.
Zuckerberg, Facebook and Oculus are not alone. Along with Oculus Rift, a state-of-the-art VR headset currently only available to developers, the industry is eagerly awaiting a number of VR headsets also expected to hit the market in the next 6 -12 months. These include the HTC Vive, Sony’s Project Morpheus headset for PlayStation 4 and the Samsung Gear VR, a budget option that uses Oculus technology.
These releases signal the start of VR hitting the mainstream, but how they’ll be received, or acknowledged at all, by the average person whose most immersive tech experience is logging on to Facebook is yet to be seen. Can they be convinced at all to take-up VR?
Engaging VR applications
VR, unsurprisingly, will enter the consumer market with immersive gaming. Most VR devices coming into the consumer market – including Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vive – will focus around gaming, and the medium is expected to be huge. Devices such as Oculus’ Touch controllers are already proving a major hit with gamers, with recent demo Toybox showing off their capabilities by allowing users to play, burn and break virtual toys.
Many people are sceptical about VR due to the previous incarnations back in the 1990s; huge, clunky devices promising great potential but unable to deliver
But as Zuckerberg made clear, the long-term opportunities for VR are diverse and wide.
One trend is the use of 360° VR videos as a marketing tool. VR company Visualise, for example, is working on a project with travel agent Thomas Cook to include flat-packed Google Cardboard headsets in holiday brochures so that potential customers can download the Thomas Cook 360 app to explore hotels and locations in Egypt.
“Pharmaceutical companies are exploring how to use VR to better educate doctors. Fashion brands are doing VR runway shows. Concerts and festivals are using VR to spread their reach,” says David Title, chief engagement officer at Bravo Media. “The impact is stunning.”
Others include Google Expeditions, which enables teachers to take a class of children on virtual field trips that let them view the world from within their classrooms, and software that allows architects to step into virtual models of projects set to the correct size and scale.
However, many people are dubious and even shy of virtual reality technology.
“Naturally many people are sceptical about VR due to the previous incarnations back in the 1990s; huge, clunky devices promising great potential but unable to deliver,” says Marcus Moresby, Creative Director of Found Studio, part of brand agency Output Group.
“There are minor issues with behavioural norms that we need to overcome in VR to enable mass engagement,” adds Henry Stuart, CEO and co-founder, Visualise.
“People often feel uncomfortable and self-conscious wearing a headset in public. Once the headset is on people tend to forget their surroundings, particularly if the content is good, so we need to work on helping them overcome initial inertia.”
Another big challenge is how many people you can get into a headset.
“How you market VR is a huge challenge and one which relies heavily on the public trying it for themselves,” says Moresby “Nintendo faced a similar task with the launch of the Wii; a huge success helped by early campaigns allowing the public to play in stores and spread via word of mouth.”
This means that when brands are doing physical activations, they are only reaching hundreds rather than thousands, or even millions of people a day.
It’s also vital to get the technology right in order to give the user a positive experience.
“Get it wrong and people could actually feel ill,” says Moresby.
Increasing virtual reality’s exposure
While consumers may be exposed to forms of VR through gaming and marketing campaigns, or even by using expensive VR equipment in the workplace, it is VR through mobile devices that will probably have the biggest impact.
For example, Google Cardboard is a simple and inexpensive device that enables consumers to experience VR using their smartphone. Samsung’s Gear VR also offers a VR experience using a smartphone and costs a mere $99. Toymaker Mattel is also bringing back the View Master for VR, which will provide another low-cost way to view VR.
“The rise of mobile VR will make VR more accessible to more people, and once the majority actually understand what VR is about, we will shift into a new phase,” says Peter Pashley, technical director of Ustwo games.
Pretty much since the dawn of time, one can make the argument that porn pushes technology
Pashley adds that it is likely that within 5 years everyone will have a VR-capable device already in their pocket, and VR will become another part of the mobile ecosystem.
However, while mobile devices and apps offer convenience and affordability, Title says for the best and most immersive VR experiences consumers will still need to be wired to a computer.
There’s also the potential for porn to push VR development.
“Pretty much since the dawn of time, one can make the argument that porn pushes technology,” says Title.
“This was true for photography, video recording and streaming video. So, porn and simulated sex will definitely be a significant part of the VR landscape, just as it is on the internet.”
Already, SugarDVD and Virtual Real Porn have made VR porn for the Oculus headset. Virtual Real Porn is also working with Lovense teledildonics to make the experience more immersive.
A virtual reality future
It’s still early days for VR entering the mainstream, and the next 6 – 12 months will provide a good indication of how quickly VR could be as commonplace as mobile devices or the internet.
“Any discussion of VR must start with a disclaimer: we are at the very beginning of the VR journey and just like the first TVs, cell phones and home computers, the technology will need time to develop,” says Title.
And with all new technologies there are many technical, not to mention, ethical, questions that will need to be considered and worked out. For example, there are issues of users becoming ‘addicted’ to an alternate world. In South Korea there are already ‘cleansing’ bootcamps for kids addicted to smartphones and gaming. VR is only going to offer a deeper, more realistic alternative reality to become lost and obsessed with.
“One area that does need to be monitored is the exposure and immersion of children in a virtual world. Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One talks of a dystopian future where people escape to a metaverse and live beyond their wildest dreams. I don’t think this would necessarily be healthy!” says Stuart.
There’s also the question of advertising and data collection which some are already very sceptical about.
“In the future, when VR devices start to include more ways of sensing their wearer such as by limb- and eye-tracking, there will begin to be issues about bio-mechanical identity. If a company can collect information on a user that allows them to replicate their voice and physical mannerisms, that starts to get a little scary,” says Pashley.
Facebook has already been widely criticised for how it uses the data it mines and whether advertising or data mining is ultimately behind its acquisition of Oculus.
For now Facebook’s ultimate plans for Oculus VR technology is unknown, but its entrance into the market is significant. In fact, nearly all big companies have moved into the VR, with one notable exception: Apple. However, Title says there is a rumour that behind closed doors Apple is hiring some of the best minds in VR, and he expects the Cupertino heavyweight could announce a headset of its own in late 2016 or 2017.
Title stresses that VR is not a ‘flash in the pan’ technology. More people adopting VR will eventually bring the price down – currently HTC and Oculus require high-powered PCs to run – and big companies behind the development of VR will speed up the improvement of the technology.
Although it is still very early days for the medium, Title is unequivocal about the fact that it will eventually change the way we do everything.
As Zuckerberg says: “One day, we believe, this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”