Virtual Reality: The Future Now or History Repeating?

From the invention of the Cinématographe projector by the Lumière Brothers in the late 19th century right up to the HD revolution of the early 21st century, the moving image has come ever closer to providing us the opportunity to experience the waking dreams of our own and others.

Now virtual reality headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and the Playstation VR, are seemingly on the advent of offering us the final step on this path. Indeed, the working brand name for Sony’s Playstation headset was Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, so the intentions and confidence are clear that the journey is nearly complete

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It is an enticing promise and one that has been met with huge anticipation on social platforms. Using Brandwatch we identified over 3 million public social media mentions in the last 3 months, 84% of which discussed the tech positively.

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However, debates still continue as to its sustainability as a mass market product and many questions still arise: Is it just a gimmick? Will it be supported enough? Is this the future or have we been here before?

Have Expedience. Will Travel.

If there is one word that could describe success of almost any 21st century technology it is “expedient”. Accessibility, ease of use, portability — any tech or app that can offer more of these than the competition tends to rise to the top, sometimes even sacrificing quality of content to get there. This century started with the MP3 format supplanting compact discs due to the convenience and cheapness of the format, even though the audio quality provided by the file type was significantly less than the more expensive physical media counterpart

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The Nintendo Wii’s sales figures outstripped those of both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 combined during the last console generation despite offering a lower picture definition and a weaker games library overall, but gained many more adopters due to the “pick up and play” nature of its motion controls that introduced an entirely new audience to the world of video games. Apple outmanoeuvred all of its rivals with its more intuitive products that were arguably easier to use and more reliable, even though its competitors were often offering more power, functionality and more open platforms.

“Expedience” is not currently a word one would associate with virtual reality. The headsets are bulky and they need to be plugged in during operation, so they will be seen as a hassle in accessing content -most of which will be more immediately available on other devices. While VR boasts a more immersive experience that it will tout over convenience, it was not too long ago that another form of technology made a similar promise…

3D or not 3D?

That really is the question for the success or failure of VR. The mantle of being the “new 3D” is one that VR wouldn’t find undesirable, but there are many parallels between the two formats: both offer a more life-like experience; both require you to wear equipment; and both are unsuited to the modern multi-screen culture.

Despite the initial boom of the 3D format back in 2010 -built on the back of the most successful film of all time, Avatar- public interest and adoption of it has waned subsequently. The extra cost, needing to wear polarised glasses, and the varying quality of 3D content (and the 3D effect in it) has led to an apathy creep among audiences. Although it is still a mainstay of modern cinema with 2015 seeing only 15% reduction in North American 3D film releases compared to the peak of 2011, it is within home entertainment that the format has failed to gain a foothold

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This is due to two main factors: lack of broadcast content and hindrance when viewing a second screen. In 2013 both ESPN and the BBC shutdown their 3D broadcast services due to tiny audience figures showing a serious decline in interest and adoption for the medium, so it’s unlikely TV stations will be willing to take the same gamble on VR during its initial launch. And then there’s the increasingly prevalent issue of second screen usage: according to Nielsen, 85% of television viewers like to be able to view phones, tablets and/or laptops as they watch TV and 3D glasses proved to be an obstruction to this. Now, a VR headset isn’t so much an obstruction, but rather a total eclipse when it comes to viewing another device. This same issue becomes double-dipped when one considers how important the shared experience is when it comes to watching TV and films, something that a VR headset is completely contrary to.

However, this is not stopping the film world from at least toying with current VR tech. During the last two Tribeca Film Festivals, VR has had a significant presence as filmmakers seek to make the most of its immersive qualities. The commercial viability of this content is probably negligible and will unlikely come close to producing the box office figures that 3D films have, but it does show that the tech is capturing imaginations and creativity. For VR to thrive, though, it would appear that interactive entertainment and experiences must be the focus or suffer the same downfalls of 3D.

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David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher