I really sympathise with publishers trying to decide whether or not to dip their toes into the VR waters. It is hard enough making business decisions about risky emerging technologies, however VR, on top of this, has a lot of hype to cut through.
There are a few things about VR that felt pretty certain when I started making it in 2015, however I’ve learned that those qualities of VR were, actually, just assumptions that people had brought with them from other industries. These myths may sound smart in a conference keynote, but try to use any of them as a basis for your work and it won't be long before they become more of a limitation than an inspiration.
1. VR is all about empathy. It is the ultimate empathy machine
Cast your mind back. It’s Spring 2015, and VR is just bubbling up as something that’s perhaps a bit more than a fun Kickstarter project. Many people can see it has potential, especially for more than gaming, but as it’s so new and most of these people haven’t tried it yet, it is kind of tricky to pinpoint a use case for it. Then, along comes Chris Milk, with a rousing and well crafted TED talk about VR being the ultimate empathy machine. He’s worked with the UN to create a powerful 360 video about the the life of a young girl in a Syrian refugee camp, called Clouds over Sidra. You see the TED talk, and now it makes sense to you: when VR next comes up as a dinner party topic, you actually have something meaningful to say about it.
This notion of VR’s key quality being its ability to foster empathy spreads, fast.
It is now 2017, and some high quality work in this genre has been made. However, it has become clear that VR can do far more than elicit empathy. Some have also brought up how ethically problematic it can be to frame VR this way, highlighting issues around appropriation and ‘poverty porn’ as entertainment.
Ultimately, VR is good at simulating experience. That's what it is a machine for, if anything. This key quality of simulation can be flexed to bring about all sorts of responses from audience members. VR can foster intimacy, it can simulate living through another's memories, it can be a powerful learning tool or it can entirely transform an audience member’s mood. Empathy is just one element of what VR is good at. The danger of this myth is that if we get too locked onto eliciting empathy, we will hold ourselves back from exploring what else this new medium has to offer.
2. VR’s 360 degree quality means audiences should be looking around them, all the time
In June, YouTube released a tool for 360 filmmakers which enables them to see a heatmap of where their audience are looking. Along with the new tool, YouTube announced some early findings of their own. The main finding was that “people spend 75% of their time looking forwards, within the front 90 degrees”. Is this an indication of creators’ failure to create good 360 videos, many asked. Surely the cool thing about VR is the fact you can look all around you?
My own experience, having now shown VR to members of the public hundreds of times in person indicates that no, the fact people spend most of the time looking forwards in VR does not indicate that the content isn’t well made. An audience member can spend 100% of the time looking ahead of them in VR, and still hugely enjoy their experience. The reason why comes back to VR’s special qualities of simulation and presence. You don’t need to be looking around you all the time to feel present. The 360 nature of VR just helps with the illusion, making it feel more like real life. It was no surprise to me to find out that VR’s early innovator, the porn industry, has been making 180 degree videos as a standard format for years now.
3. VR will be in every home, just like television, within a few years
Every year since 2015 has been described widely as ‘The Year of VR’. 2015, 2016, 2017 – and probably 2018. There seems to be this idea where there will be this magic moment where suddenly it is just … normal. We keep seeing developments, the tech does keep getting better and a bit cheaper. But it is proving to be a gradual process.
The conclusion I’ve come to in the work I have done with VR in arts venues and on BAFTA’s VR advisory group is that the first place it will become a norm is in venues, as a leisure activity. In the same way you’d go on an evening out to the theatre, bowling alley or cinema, you’ll probably be considering doing that with VR in a few years. When curating Virtual Reality Sessions with Watershed cinema in Bristol, we found that audiences enjoyed collective VR as an evening out with friends, a fun social activity with colleagues, or even as something to do on a Tinder date!
People will have to try VR several times before they invest in a headset for their home. Some people might even decide they don’t need a headset at home at all, and are very content with only doing VR outside of the house where there is a clear use case for it. If you are making work for people who aren’t technology early adopters then is well worth thinking venue-first, when it comes to high end VR, at least for the next 3 years or so.
Each of these myths I have believed myself at some stage. Immersive media is a new industry and artistic medium, and hence we are all still learning. More seductive assumptions will emerge of course. We’ll probably brainstorm ideas around them, get excited in meetings and watch a few powerful keynote presentations. It is all part of the process of building a body of knowledge and a structure for an entire industry.