The Reality behind “Virtual Reality”

from the brilliant graphic novel series East of West. Narrative not really relevant to my thoughts below, but it’s just a great image.

A lot of people have been looking at VR and wondering when and how to embrace the technology (not really a single technology, more on that below). YouTube announced its embrace of VR today. The New York Times dipped its toes in the water today by releasing a well-done app focused on richer storytelling and journalism. Lytro adds a new 360 camera to its lineup that looks like a step forward. Or maybe they are pivoting. I worry that the pretty good immersive video that’s grabbing headlines will divert dollars, attention, innovation away from the breakthrough stuff, confusing and alienating consumers in the process.

I worry that the pretty good immersive video that’s grabbing headlines will divert dollars, attention, and innovation away from the breakthrough stuff, confusing and alienating consumers in the process.

The first “VR” content is impressive. We have definitely come a long way from VRML and QuickTime VR. It’s a neat experience to virtually sit on the front row of a Warriors game and look up and down the court. Not profound — more oooh than wow. Something is missing. And I wonder if our industry excitement around 360 degree immersive video in the headlines is doing a disservice to the wow stuff that’s coming.

As for what YouTube and the Times are doing — can we agree not to call it Virtual Reality? It’s immersive video. There will be some neat applications for this beyond sports and teledildonics. Presidential debates are likely not one of these applications.

It’s possible, let’s say probable, that storytellers, documentarians and news organizations will apply this capability in dynamic new ways. But for now, I have a gnawing negativity in the pit of my stomach about immersive video. Not as bad as the home 3D push a few years back, but a general feeling of meh.

  1. I believe in the talent and skill of storytellers of all kinds, and the editorial choices they make to bring us into their world — real or fictional. Using the NYT app, I found myself drifting back to the focus of the story. The periphery was just the periphery. A linear, single non-immersive view might have worked well.
  2. We can’t see more than one thing at the same time. In the coolest action sports videos, there may be interesting things to see at the same time — the sufers’ view to the front, the curl of the wave to the side. Even with immersive video I cannot see them at the same time without rewinding. But a good editor can make sure that I am seeing the best stuff at all times. Maybe the innovation is around the capture of the video — not the display. With a single handheld device, a bold citizen would catch all the action in a public demonstration. And an editor could put it together to view.
  3. There’s a lot of VR hype right now, and no doubt thousands of Gear VR and similar headsets will be sold this holiday season. Are we in danger of creating a consumer backlash if the first wave of content makes for little more than a novelty? When generally respected publications like Gizmodo compare NYT VR to an Oculus experience, we have a problem. “But NYT VR could mark a milestone. It’s not asking readers to buy additional, pricy peripherals like an Oculus Rift to enjoy virtual reality.” — Gizmodo
  4. Am I just making the same contrarian argument that people have made for decades when a new format, device and type of storytelling starts to emerge? Maybe. Maybe, not.
  5. Step into a true Virtual Reality environment and it has more in common with a Star Trek holodeck than it does with YouTube immersive video. Oculus and similar experiences combine interactivity, sound, depth and movement truly provide a glimpse into the future. I saw a series of true VR demos last week that blew my mind. Thanks Will Smith. Maybe YouTube VR and NYT VR are just an appetizer to get us ready for what’s the to come. But I worry that the pretty good immersive video that’s grabbing headlines will divert dollars, attention, innovation away from the truly breakthrough stuff, confusing and alienating consumers in the process.

A lot of this activity reminds me of the early days of online video. Innovative companies like Atom Films and FeedRoom cleared the road, motivating people to leave their successful media jobs to come pioneer online video. When in reality we were still 6–8 years away from the big winners even taking the field, and 10+ years away from the major consumer behavioral shift. It’s likely the mainstream VR story is still 10 years away and will look different from what we are seeing today.

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