Why VR isn’t the future…

Or at least, not just yet.

VR is definitely flavour of the month: Sony recently announced the release of their VR headset, the PlayStation VR; SXSW was once again dominated by brands showcasing applications for their VR products; and years after being swallowed by the Zuckerberg-sphere, Oculus Rift will soon be available for customers to buy.

All in all, it seems like VR is here to stay. Clearly it’s still in the embryonic stages of its lifecycle, so there are bound to be both software and hardware issues that will be smoothed out as it becomes more widely spread. However, if you read the press coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was on the cusp of blowing up big time and taking the mainstream by storm any minute now. In fact, Zuckerberg himself suggested that it’s ‘the next platform’.

That’s not going to happen. At least not yet. There are some fundamental hurdles facing VR headsets that could severely limit their appeal to the mass market. Here are some issues that need to be ironed out:

Problems:

Aesthetics

There’s a reason that smartwatches, and wearable technologies more generally, haven’t taken off – they’re ugly. The technology hasn’t advanced to the stage where the components are small enough to be easily concealed. As such, in order to accommodate the necessary processing power, these items are usually cumbersome and ungainly to look at. When it comes to what they’re wearing, people are more concerned with fashion over function and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

The same problem applies to VR headsets. It’s extremely difficult to wear one without looking like a bit of a twat. They’re clunky and intrusive. Not so bad if you’re sitting in a cinema full of people wearing them; bit more of an issue if you’re sitting at home or in a café. It’s going to make people feel self-conscious which will turn some people off.

gearVRcrowd-2
It’s impossible to look good wearing one of these things.

It’s not mobile

Ok,  technically the smartphone-powered Samsung Gear VR is mobile, but it’s not the sort of thing you can reliably use on the go. For one, they’re far more space consuming than a phone and it’s more awkwardly shaped than a tablet, meaning that it’s going to occupy a lot of bag space.

It’s difficult to see you slipping it on while you’re waiting at the bus stop [for hopefully obvious reasons] or briefly using it when your mate goes to get a round in at the bar. All of which suggests to me that these are going to be devices predominantly used at home and/or in designated spaces.

Other than the Samsung, the other options on the market require you to be tethered to a PC [with an actual cord in most demos of the Vive I’ve seen].

The two examples I highlighted above actually feed into some other issues I foresee:

It doesn’t align with how we use other technology

The way we interact with our devices and the way we consume media has changed significantly. If you observe how people use their devices at home or at work, you’ll see that the majority of them are constantly dipping in and out of things. What you see is a series of micro-interactions: you sit on the sofa watching TV and when it goes to an ad break, your attention switches back to the news article you’re reading on your laptop until your phone pings with a message on Whatsapp. You reply to the message and, while you’re there, quickly check Twitter and scroll down the TL. Not only does your attention shift quickly between devices, but also between apps on a single device.

It’s a concept known as ‘continuous partial attention’, whereby our attention is constantly split between a variety of different stimuli and we flit between them continually, hummingbird-style.

To illustrate how ubiquitous this is, the average American supposedly checks their phone 46 times a day. It’s difficult to see how VR headsets adapt to this established behaviour, as having to physically remove the headset every time you want to check something else is going to be a huge pain in the arse. The alternative then is for it to assimilate with your other devices and allow you to access your apps on the headset. But just because you can post to Instagram or read an article on your Oculus Rift doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s your preferred method of doing that activity.

Finally, the key selling point of VR is the enhanced level of immersion that it grants experiences. If you’re having to disrupt this by taking the device off every time you want to check your phone, your immersion is going to be broken and one of the major benefits of the format is going to be undermined.

It’s anti-social media

Following on from the point above, the immersive nature of the device is both its strength and biggest weakness. By virtue of its immersive nature, any VR experience is going to command all of your attention. To maximise your experience and for you to get the most out of the equipment, it needs to dominate your senses.

Which is perfectly fine if you’re intending to use it when you’re physically by yourself, but you can’t exactly sit and use it to its full potential when you’ve got company. Most of us check our phones or tablets during lulls in conversation, but the difference is that even if our attention is focused elsewhere, we can still chat to someone else or listen to them. The same can’t really be said for VR. It prevents you from interacting with others in person while you’re using it. Again, doesn’t quite rime with existing behaviour.

Problem with ‘immersion’

Something else worth mentioning on the immersion thing [it keeps coming up as it’s essentially the product’s USP] – I’m not sure it matches our current attention spans. Obviously people do things that require prolonged periods of active attention – playing games and watching films etc – quite regularly. However, it’s easy to let your mind wander doing those things and it’s extremely simple to pause, go do something else and continue later.

Not so much with VR, which would involve attaching and detaching the device from your head and you find yourself in a position where the breaks in immersion diminish your experience. Not to mention that prolonged use is probably going to a bit overwhelming on your senses and that wearing something that is presumably mildly heavy [?] on your face for an extended period of time is going to get uncomfortable.

No-one really knows what it is yet

Ok so we’ve established that it doesn’t fit well with being a computer replacement like a tablet, or being a primarily social device like a phone[despite Zuckerbeg they were ‘working on a whole new level of social experience [with VR]’ at his recent F8 conference] … so what about if it functions as a purely entertainment device, like a TV or games console?

Sounds good, but those two devices [currently] do different things, so which will it be? This seems to be a conversation the industry is having with itself right now: no-one can seem to settle on what to call the things you do on a VR headset. Games? Experiences? Enhanced films? ‘Interactive movie’?

IGN recently reviewed a Star Wars VR product and ran into this problem. They called both a “proof of concept thing” and “not a game, an experience”, while an ILM spokesman calls it a “first-person storytelling experience”, stressing the fact that they’re treating it like a serialised, episodic product, rather than approaching it like a traditional game. 

Of course, what actually constitutes a ‘game’ is a question that is consistently being asked and has been heavily debated with the release of titles such as The Stanley Parable and Depression Quest in recent years.

I’m not particularly qualified to answer that question, but for the sake of argument, let’s say a game requires input to an interface from a user to be experienced. Does the lack of physical interface mean that anything on a Rift isn’t a game? Most of the stuff I’ve seen has been on ‘train tracks’, meaning that your movement during the experience is automated and you progress forward on a predetermined path at a predetermined rate. Which is fine and works well for quite simplistic games etc but it diminishes the promise of ‘immersion’ that is so central to what makes VR special. It’s difficult to feel immersed when you’re not free to move around. This especially significant given that the autonomy of movement and action granted to video game players is one of the primary appeals of that medium. If your experience is devoid of that, is it a game?

All of that seems a bit abstract and perhaps comes across like semantic quibbling, but it does lead to a more concrete problem. If you can’t decide or define what you are, it is difficult to talk about or sell yourself. What VR provides is a completely different proposition to what people are used to, so marketers need to find a compelling way of communicating the product and experience they can provides, if it wants to be able to sell them to a lot of people.

Mass-market appeal

I’d argue that mobile gaming is only popular due to the fact is appears on a device that has other, significant functionality within our lives and also because it requires little in the way of time commitment. VR offers neither of these things, which is why I think that it’ll struggle to gain a foothold in the mass market. At the minute it’s a novelty and as an entertainment device, it’ll remain as a slightly frivolous toy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it won’t reach the level of ubiquity of the smartphone until it can demonstrate that it fills a hole in our lives and becomes ingrained in the necessities of our day-to-day lives.

Problems with space

On a somewhat related note to the above, if developers for VR software want to do away with the ‘train tracks’ movement model they need to find an effective way of allowing users to control their movement. The Oculus Rift is compatible with a regulation Xbox controller but I’d feel a bit uncomfortable using a conventional joystick+buttons controller, or keyboard+mouse input as they are both reliant on sight [I don’t care how good you are at touch typing, you still need to have it in your peripheral vision to get your bearings].

So what are some alternatives? I’ve seen some fully VR experiences where users run on a stationary treadmill style machine that captures and translates their motion to in-game. Obviously this is great, but it’s wildly impractical in terms of both cost and space. This sort of thing is not going to viable in homes at all.

You could go with a motion control device, like the Wii remote. The Vive has a motion tracked controller and the Rift is developing one.  However, given the vast amount of damage that was caused in the first few weeks of the Wii being released, can you imagine how much stuff would be broken from people flailing around their living rooms with the aforementioned lack of peripheral vision? It’ll be carnage.

Essentially, VR experiences will be limited in their capabilities until they figure out the best way to deal with this. Plus, the problem for game developers/ content providers is that if there is no uniform user-input across these devices, they’re going to have to port them to be tailored to the variations between headsets. Furthermore, there’s not even a standard on how large your virtual experience is going to be. The Rift is more sit down and experience stuff, while the Vive is room-scale. That means time and resources.

Expensive

I mean, obviously this was going to be the case, but it’s currently the price of a new games console/ half-decent laptop and an ill-defined notion of the type of content it’s going to provide. On top of that, aside from the Samsung Gear which uses a smartphone, you need a relatively high-end, high-spec PC to run the software for these devices, which is obviously going to be prohibitive for many. This will likely change, but it’s a big outlay for a bit of kit at this stage.

Some of the applications that brands have been developing, or have been mooted as options in the future, include things like virtual tours of museums, travelling to simulated destinations, as well as live music and sporting events. All this has been heralded as the democratisation of experiences previously rendered inaccessible by geography or cost. Which is all well and good, and it definitely has the potential to be a democratic medium, but these democratised experiences are only going to be available to people who can afford the VR headset in the first place. If the cost of the hardware is a barrier to entry for people, which it will be for a while given the uncertainty of exactly what you’ll get for your money, you can’t really hype up how open your products are if your audience is limited.

I’m not sure it’s truly that immersive

Reality is a multi-sensory experience. VR can provide you with simulated visual and aural experience, but it can never fully replicate reality without stimulating your other senses. At SXSW, Budweiser’s VR brewery tour seemed to acknowledge this shortcoming, by having people walk past with hops so people can smell them at the apposite time in the VR video, as well as spraying them with steam to feel the heat of the factory. I’d argue that these additional bits and pieces turn the tour into augmented reality rather than just virtual reality, but semantics aside, these added elements seem to acknowledge the deficiencies of the headset by itself.

Torture

If you want to get really heavy, think about how this sort of tech could be abused. Given how totally it dominates your attention, it’s quite easy to see how it could be utilised in conjunction with ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ or as part of a mental conditioning programme.

Think A Clockwork Orange. Cheerful stuff.

clockwork_brainwash

As you can see, a lot of my reservations about it as a platform revolve around uncertainty over just exactly what it is and what it wants to be. Is it a social or entertainment device? Is it for games or movies? If games, what sort exactly?

A lot of these issues will undoubtedly be sorted out and it’ll be interesting to see what sort of positioning that Samsung, Oculus and Sony take up with their advertising. It’ll certainly reveal just how those companies view their devices and it’ll be intriguing to see what sort of audiences they covet.

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