The Future of Virtual Reality
(and why it’s causing us to change our name)
This may come as a surprise to no one, but I never expected to be CEO of a technology company.
My unlikely journey to this point began when, as a child, I discovered my first love: music. To this day, nothing makes me feel as much as instruments and voices coming together to cast a spell, tell a story, or travel me back in time, into a memory.
Foolishly, I became a filmmaker instead of a musician. All the while, I was searching for ways to evoke in others the same depth of feeling as music gave me.
I found early on in my career that new developing technologies gave me the opportunity to explore new ways of telling stories — ones that could be more personal, immersive, and emotionally resonant. After lots of twists and turns experimenting to this end, I began exploring virtual reality. It was just a few short years ago, but VR was still a mystical concept to most back then, something that existed only in science fiction. Some saw it as extraordinary, as humanity’s next evolutionary step; others saw it as apocalyptic. I saw it as the only thing that might one day make me feel more than music.
Where VR is today
In the past year, VR headsets finally reached the hands of the general public. The initial reaction — from the media, academics, and early adopters — was positively glowing.
But now we’re at the point in the technology adoption cycle where we’re starting to hear some naysaying reverberations in the echo chamber — like a publication several weeks ago that ran the following articles on the same day: “Why You Should Try That Crazy Virtual Reality Headset” and “Why the Virtual-Reality Hype is About to Come Crashing Down.”
Yes, the reality of VR is currently lagging behind the promise. Content is limited. The “trough of disillusionment” in every hype cycle will inevitably come.
Yet I’ve never been so thrilled by a moment in time.
I believe that virtual reality marks an inflection point. That this is much more than the latest gizmo or fad, but rather the genesis of a fundamentally new technology platform — one that will change how we communicate, connect, and tell stories. VR is just its first manifestation.
The last time we saw a shift like this was in the 1800s, with the invention of the fundamental technologies behind recording and broadcasting moving pictures and sound. Out of those technologies evolved radio, cinema, television, the telephone, the internet — spawning a multitude of new industries, media formats, and storytelling languages in the process.
The modern world, the world you and I know, wouldn’t exist without the arrival of those technologies more than 150 years ago.
We are at one of these extraordinary moments again.
Where VR is headed
Until now, storytelling mediums have allowed us to share approximations of human experience in external frames — forms that take up space in the physical world: books, letters, theater stages, movie screens, TVs, smartphones, tablets. While the stories we tell using these forms help bring us closer than ever to the lived experiences of others, they don’t give us the ability to live within those experiences firsthand. Even in the case of cinema, which has been called “externalized consciousness”, we witness, interpret, and internalize human experiences — but the medium is always external to us.
VR eliminates the need for external frames. For the first time, the medium is no longer outside us, but within us. The paint is human experience and the canvas is our consciousness. The idea of an externalized medium ceases to exist. That’s why I think of VR as the last medium. (More thoughts on this in my TED talk released today).
VR represents a technology communicating to us using the same language in which our consciousness experiences the world around us: the language of human experience. Pause on that for a moment. For the first time, we can construct or record — and then share — fundamental human experiences, using technology that stimulates our senses in a manner so closely approximating lived experience that our lizard brain interprets it as real (which, by the way, is what “presence” is).
Suddenly the challenge is no longer suspending our disbelief — but remembering that what we’re experiencing isn’t real.
For example, a while back I made a VR film called Evolution of Verse. The film is built directly from a series of dreams I had. When you watch it, you step inside my dreamscape, travel through the frame, and share firsthand in my experiences there.
This means you can live within my story, and that is incredibly exciting. For thousands of years, we’ve been limited to stories that happened “once upon a time” about “people over there.” The story has always existed outside of our present moment, and been about someone else. While modern media has done much to make the world a smaller place and help us become more empathetic — more understanding and respectful of others, and more cognizant of our common humanity — the same basic limitations have remained. With VR, for the first time, stories become about “us, here, now.”
That you can step inside my dream — or I can step within yours — with a $15 Google Cardboard and the smartphone in our pockets is exactly what’s so significant about this point in time. Technology now allows us to communicate in the language of raw human experience. And in the long term, VR will lead to the democratization of human experience, the same way the internet lead to the democratization of data.
Over the horizon
VR opens the door to what Jaron Lanier (who coined the term virtual realityin the 1980s) calls “post-symbolic communication”: No longer are we limited to communicating via sequences of symbols represented by audible vibrations of our vocal chords, or produced by our fingers pressing on a series of keys or, more recently, a flat piece of glass. Instead, you experience my dream directly, without having to interpret long strings of verbal or written symbols.
Today, I can get what’s in my head into yours using a VR headset. So we’ve mostly solved the input problem. It’s outputting my experience in the first place that’s the challenge; for example, translating my dream into a photorealistic, 360-degree, stereoscopic VR film with binaural sound took a great deal of time, effort, and resources.
But when we solve the output problem, not only will I be able to immediately communicate my dream to you as a raw, first-hand experience — you and I will be able to communicate back and forth freely, in real time, in a language that goes beyond words to include thoughts, emotions, and direct sensory impressions.
In other words, VR will be more than just a storytelling platform. It will be a platform for sharing our inner self — our very humanity.
That’s a long way off, but getting us there is a big part of our mission.
Two big announcements
We founded Vrse — and I went from being a creator to the CEO of a technology company — because there was no way to make the immersive VR films we imagined without building the technology to create, play, and distribute them.
We’ve learned a great deal about the capabilities of VR since then. And our vision for where this technology might lead has only grown. To help us achieve that vision, today I’m humbled to announce that we’re closing our Series A round of funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation by 21st Century Fox.
But that’s not our only announcement.
When my co-founder Aaron Koblin and I started the company, we wanted to embrace the exciting technology called “VR”. We thought we were being oh-so-clever to remove a vowel and place the letters V and R right next to each other in our name. VRse.
A few unforeseen problems developed, though. People reading our name often don’t know how to say it, and people who do know how to say it often don’t know how to spell it when searching for it. Turns out these are not great features for a company name. More importantly though, tying our brand to “virtual reality”, a phrase we may not even use in ten years, seems inadvisable. And at our heart, we’re about more than just a specific technology or buzzword — we’re about creating and sharing human experience. Technology is just a tool to get us there.
So we’re putting to rest our old name and taking a new one — one that better represents who we are, what we stand for, and what we’re working towards. As a bonus, maybe people will even be able to pronounce it.
The stories of tomorrow will be fully immersive. The medium, the place where those stories will unfold, exists within our consciousness. We’ll find ourselves having passed through our long-held, precious frames to live within those stories. And we’ll carry the memory of those stories not as content that we once consumed, but as times and spaces we existed within.
So we’re changing our new name to Within.
To us, the name represents storytelling as human experience. We hope you like it. If you don’t, we hope it grows on you. You’ll now be able to find us here:
You’ll also notice that the name of our app on your phone or VR headset will change from Vrse to Within. But it’ll be the same gateway to all our VR experiences.
It’s been an amazing journey so far — and it’s only going to get better. We hope you’ll join us in moving beyond “once upon a time” about “people over there” — and start experiencing stories with “us, here, now.”
We’ll see you Within.