VR is Dead, Long Live VR

VR has huge potential but it’s time to admit that we don’t actually know what to do with it.

There isn’t a day that goes by without a new VR headset being launched, a funky new 360º camera or a Kickstarter VR thingie hitting its funding within hours. It’s not surprising, the pundits predicted it in their ‘What To Watch In 2016’ lists in January and it’s really happening. Only, let’s face it, it’s not really, is it?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love VR. We have an Oculus Rift and dozens of Google Cardboard headsets we dish out to anyone who barely mouths the letters V and R. I totally get it. In fact, I got it back in 1991 when I travelled 300 miles from Cornwall in the back of a Ford Fiesta to sneak into a London trade event to experience the first Virtuality headset for myself.

It wasn’t perfect but the potential felt enormous. Unfortunately, that’s exactly when we’re still saying. We’re all desperately trying to figure out why and how we need to use it without letting on we don’t really know.

Anti-social reality

It’s not really slotting into our nice, comfy media buy with nice, predictable results. But it’s not just because it’s new (even though it isn’t), I think it’s much more human than that. Could you even imagine wearing a VR headset down the pub or on the bus? And that’s the point, it’s not social in an ‘actual reality’ sense.

It almost begs you to sit at home in the dark, alone, probably in your pants, so you can fly around your fantasy virtual world without fear of your mates larking about in front of you or somebody pinching your laptop while your face is covered. It’s brilliant for some things but making social gatherings better isn’t one of them.

Counting the cost

Yet. And then there’s the oft-sidestepped issue of the kit. A £10 Google cardboard is a great entry experience but the quality isn’t great. Your poor old iPhone and a few plastic lenses isn’t going to cut it.

The daddy of the VR world, the Oculus, requires a separate, powerful computer with an awkward cable connected to the glasses. You won’t get much change out of £450 even before you buy the PC. Even with the likes of Samsung’s Gear VR, where you supply your own phone as the screen, you’re looking at £100. That’s a decent outlay only the most dedicated fans will consider.

So it’s not exactly accessible. We’re only just starting to see production companies behave themselves when it comes to pricing for VR production. The vast majority still charge over the odds because they need your money to pay for their experimentation. Luckily, that is changing.

VR video shoots for £35k start to seem like good value. Binaural or 360º audio editing is becoming commonplace and directors who get 360º filming (where EVERYTHING is suddenly in shot) are starting to talk from experience not theory.

But there’s the final scab that needs picking… directing. The luxury of having a simple square of video to play with doesn’t apply with VR. Because the viewer effectively has live control over the camera view, directing their gaze is difficult. At worst, a director’s skills are dumbed down to setting the camera’s path then standing back and hoping the viewer doesn’t muck up the narrative by looking at the wrong thing. A curious nut that nobody seems to have cracked.

Virtual freedom

Real-time interactive VR experiences, on the other hand, are some of the best I’ve experienced. By interactive, I mean you have freedom to walk/fly/drive/swim around AND view what you want.

The freedom to explore is only limited by the experience itself… oh, and having an input device to move about. I have a good friend who is desperate to design a ‘new world’ where the rules of gravity, society and logic don’t apply.

I want to visit that world. Budget? About £100k to get an initial feel. Ouch. And don’t get me started on why the V in VR should really stand for Visual. You get a great Visual Reality but where are the senses of touch, taste, smell or motion that make our reality feel so real. So VR is over-hyped, misunderstood, lonely, embarrassing, expensive, difficult to make and not really much of a reality substitute.

It’s really not going to be mainstream any time soon… chill. But the boat is sailing folks. Facebook, Microsoft and countless others are spending billions acquiring and developing VR technology. It IS happening.

You want my advice? Take note of Apple. They are notorious for waiting for the fools to rush in and then learn from their failures. Unless you’re brief is super-tight, keep your powder dry. Watch and learn. 2017 will be the year of VR.

Dino Burbidge

About Dino Burbidge

I know enough about most things to be dangerous. Currently Director of Innovation and Technology at WCRS.

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