Virtual Reality: A New Hype

Do we really want to be fully immersed in technology?


Note: This is an English translation of an essay that originally appeared in Danish on my blog, Medieblogger:

Virtual Reality: Løfter og hype


We’ve all heard about the bliss of Virtual Reality; travel to remote places without leaving your living room, take center stage in your favorite game and experience how you melt together with the film and/or the technology.

For many years we’ve heard about Virtual Reality and for as many years we’ve heard that we’re almost there. For many years the biggest problem was that the technology wasn’t ready. For example, there were delays on the visual feedback when the user turned his/her head. That is something our brain can’t handle and it is quite the unpleasant experience, I can imagine.

Within the last couple of years, though, a lot has happened regarding the technology thanks to companies like Oculus (owned by Facebook), and now the VR spokespersons soon will only need to overcome the final obstacle: That very few of us actually care about Virtual Reality.

History, a speedy re-cap

Before we get started, it’s always a good idea to start with the background. According to the Wikipedia article on Virtual Reality, “Elements of virtual reality appeared as early as the 1860s”. (All links in this article are bundled at the end as well, so hold that click ;-)

The big boost drawing VR towards what we know it as today, happens in the 1980s where especially Jaron Lanier [Wikipedia] popularizes the term. VPL Research (the company Lanier co-founded) where the first to produce and sell Virtual Reality goggles and gloves.

Lanier bases his work and philosophy on the combination of counterculture and computers which took place in the 1960s, where the hippies adopted the personal computer. Here, personal computers (and in time, the internet) see a change in role and usage — from the scientific and military environments to becoming a usable and almost mind-expanding tool, allowing us to become better humans. In this context, Virtual Reality is practically the fusion of man and machine in the highest potency.

However, VPL Research filed for bankruptcy in 1990 and in 1999 Sun Microsystems acquired its patents.

And then for a period of years…nothing much happened. Virtual Reality remained in the land of science fiction, continually hyped as one of the next huge things — when the technology was ready, that is. And that was just around the corner.

Meanwhile, something happened a couple of years ago. Not only has computers become more powerful; GPU chips (placed on graphic cards and also used in artificial intelligence) are continually improved [MIT Technology Review] even though Moore’s law (on the development in computing power) is no longer valid. Add to this the fact that we are all carrying a small, but powerful, computer in our pocket; our smartphone.

Games, mobile… and journalism?

Therefore we recently saw yet another Virtual Reality hype including game consoles (PlayStation 4 Pro) and mobile phones (where especially Samsung has tried really hard). But it’s all kinda…meh.

In the cheaper end of the spectrum, Google has had success with their Cardboard glasses, where you place your smartphone in a pair of “glasses” made of cardboard and watch a film in a sort of 3D/Virtual Reality mode, allowing you to look around the movie (some might say “navigate”) by turning your head. It does seem like Cardboard may have had its time and as I’ll get back to in a moment, this isn’t really Virtual Reality but more like an expanded video experience.

The same Google also tried “augmented reality” (where you add layers of information on top of the real world) with their ‘Glass’ product which was supposed to take you on what appeared like the next step on the evolutionary ladder. In 2015 Glass was put on pause.

In journalism as well there is talk of Virtual Reality. You almost want to ask the proponents behind this type of storytelling whether they themselves believe in it. Is it when you’re sitting with your phone browsing through the most important news of the day that you’re all of a sudden instructed to put on your VR gear and prepare to experience a crime scene?

Or is it an “immerse yourself in the story” VR app which is only updated once a month (at the most), because VR productions will be insanely expensive and hardly used, so only the utmost feature productions which might win an award but won’t make any money get the VR treatment?

Did you know, for instance, that The Economist have done to Virtual Reality productions? One on Mosul and one on corals. The first one is from May 2016 while the corals are from April 2017. A quick calculation on timeanddate.com shows that 292 days have passed between the publication of the two.

Virtual Reality != 360° video

Especially when it comes to the world of media and journalism we need to keep things separate and true to their meaning. Otherwise we’ll have a confusion of terms, and we have plenty of those already.

In April 2016 Danish ‘MediaWatch’ (which covers the media industry in Denmark) wrote that Danish media want to get on the Virtual Reality bandwaggon. But when you read the article you find out that they aren’t really talking about Virtual Reality, but 360° videos. A format, where a video file/stream is played like we are used to; the only difference is that the video is being played is all around the viewer which can turn around in the viewing by turning his/her head. This is also how Google Cardboard works.

This is somewhat distant from Virtual Reality where the user can move about and interact with the environment in different ways. 360° video is a rather passive user experience (you could say that it’s simply a improvement on the experience of moving our eyes around on a 16:9 screen). VR has more dimensions, layers and experiences to offer.

I haven’t yet looked at The Economist’s Virtual Reality productions, but since they support Google Cardboard my guess is that there are different 360° videos as well.

This is not to badmouth the 360 format, which I think can work fine as video (even better with images since the risk of missing something is smaller) but it isn’t Virtual Reality.

However, I don’t quite fancy the 360° video format. First, it requires all of your attention. Second, you risk missing an important event in the film because which happened while you were looking at birds or something else. Personally, I have more faith in another variant of the 360° format, where the user is circling around an event (like the Moon around Earth, except without a fixed path) and can watch if from every angle.

It could be the important goal in a football/soccer match, a large demonstration, a presidential inauguration or something else. And the most important thing is that short segments of video can be repeated again and again while the user hovers around.

But let’s get back to the Virtual Reality subject; the recent VR hype has an interesting cause:

Why are we in such a hurry?

The recent rush with Virtual Reality gadgets and other types of hardware (and software, for that matter) all looks like a classic example of almost an entire industry falling madly in love with a technology which the users don’t really want. The best thing I’ve read on this development is an article from the tech magazine The Information entitled Why Today’s Tech Narrative is Way Ahead of Reality:

Tech companies are accelerating their narratives around everything from VR to self-driving cars because they need to convince the world the hypergrowth from mobile can be sustained.

The major reason for all of this is the fact that the mobile market is nearly saturated. The limit on what can be put in a phone (that the user will actually base his/her choice in phone on) is very nearly reached. Of course, the growth curves at various tech companies don’t take something like this into account, so now it’s all about shoving the next piece of smart technology down our throats, so they can keep the bus going and the growth graph on the right inclination.

The media industry tags along

In recent years most of the innovation in the global media industry has come from the technology industry. The phone, the user hold in his/her hand, the ecosystem and economy the content travels through and relies on and the libraries used in the code on especially interactive presentations, all originate mostly from other industries.

So, when tech companies begin to push Virtual Reality (for their own gains) a lot of media companies tag along — that is, after all, what they are used to. Here it’s easy to forget the user’s perspective and the situation playing out when he/she has to consume some kind of media content.

On my blog ‘Medieblogger’ (in Danish) I have written an article based on The Information article mentioned above. Here I also write about Virtual Reality?

And Virtual Reality? I have a hard time seeing what we can offer that the users might find interesting. And even though the technology has improved for the VR users it will still be a huge task producing the content and the experiences. And will it make sense compared with how many/few who will be using it? I doubt it.
We are in the size of documentaties — but I think VR is more suited for games. Facebook is working on something where they want to combine Virtual Reality with social, but… I’ll believe it when I see it.

Presence

The problem with Virtual Reality is that it requires all of our presence. You can’t watch a VR movie, play a game or hang out with your friends in the virtual world while you are doing something else. It eats you 100 percent.

That can be an uncomfortable situation to be in; what can happen in the real world while you are visiting Macchu Picchu, The Great Wall of China or Camp Nou?

This also means that VR keeps you from doing anything else. You can’t just pause it while you answer a message from a friend or google which movie it is you know that actor from. Things that (good and bad) have come to characterize our highly fragmented media consumption these years. If people have a hard time immersing themselves into something as simple as a book, how are they going to handle a Virtual Reality “prison”? And do we want to let ourselves slip into a digital reality if we can’t “second screen” on our mobile phones and keep our friends updated on how awesome it is — while we check Facebook and Instagram?

Another question is whether we actually care about Virtual Reality. 10 years ago the virtual world in Second Life was all the rage. I can remember seeing an employee from a Danish manufacturer of pumps (which we are pretty good at) appearing in a segment on the news where he looked at a computer generated swimming pool in Second Life and explained why that particular pool just might need pumps from his company. It was exactly as crazy as it sounds and Second Life vanished out of our lives rather quickly — after all, who wants to create an avatar/virtual persona and navigate around a virtual world in search of someone to talk to?

We simply lost interest, probably because it was too much of a hassle and because no one has that big a need to meet new people which disguise themselves or play dress up online. At the top of the list of the most popular smartphones apps in the US in 2016 [Wikipedia] we find Facebook and Facebook’s Messenger; two applications centered on the task of keeping you in touch with the people you already know and follow.

What is The Matrix?

Everyone who has seen ‘The Matrix’ (or ‘The Thirteenth Floor’ which came out before The Matrix) has probably wanted to get comfortable and travel into a virtual world, preferably without having a long awl injected into the back of your head. But when you think about it is it realistically something we’ll actually bother getting into?

Sure, it would be awesome to try a couple of times, like so many hyped gizmos. But, I wonder if Neo, Morpheus and the others would keep on jacking into The Matrix if their lives didn’t depend on it. And what if the smart, fancy mobile phones existed in the real life, not in The Matrix?

According to Kevin Kelly (founder of the Wired magazine) Virtual Reality will become “The Biggest Tech Disruption in the Next 5 Years” [YouTube]. It is very likely that I am out of touch with reality; in that case I’ll be the first one to send Kelly a “You got it!” diploma, but I am very, very skeptical. Mainly because the Virtual Reality user experience is so different from other technologies and media offerings we have seen so far.

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream

A scenario, however, could be the need to escape the world. Sam Lessin (the author of the The Information article mentioned above) has just written on the possible scenarios for Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in 2017, now that it is quite obvious the technologies can’t live up to the hype:

With things like meditation on the rise, increasing discussion of digital drugs, and an ever-noisier environment full of interruptions and push notifications, what if people started building VR experiences to escape all the noise of modernity — not to double down on it.
One of the main features of putting on a headset is losing the ability to glance at your phone. VR could grow up as our ultra-technological techno-escape space.

We could call it Virtual Serenity. Maybe you even get to sit under the same Bodhi tree that Siddhārtha Gautama sat under for 49 days, before he according to the legend reached enlightenment. In that case, hurry on to Facebook and share what you have learned.


Lars is Danish journalist employed in the digital development department behind one of Denmark’s biggest and busiest news websites. He has written on the future of journalism and new media for a decade.

Follow his writings on larskjensen.dk.


Sources / Read more:

Link to articles etc. mentioned in this article (publication date in parenthesis):

» Wikipedia: Virtual Reality

» Wikipedia: Jaron Lanier (Who pioneered Virtual Reality in the 1980s)

…for a bigger picture perspective on Virtual Reality, read ‘Rise of the Machinies’ by Thomas Rid.

» MIT Technology Review: How AI Can Keep Accelerating After Moore’s Law (May 30th, 2017)

» The Economist / Prospero blog: Introducing “RecoVR Mosul”, The Economist’s first VR experience (May 20th, 2016)

» The Economist / Prospero blog: Dive into our latest VR piece, about corals (March 8th, 2017)

» MediaWatch: Danske medier vil med på virtual reality-bølgen (April 6th, 2016)

» The Information: Why Today’s Tech Narrative is Way Ahead of Reality (October 17th, 2016)

» Medieblogger: Har tech-firmaerne for travlt til, at vi andre kan følge med? (October 20th, 2016)

» Wikipedia: List of most popular smartphone apps

» YouTube / Big Think: Virtual Reality: The Biggest Tech Disruption in the Next 5 Years | Kevin Kelly (February 6th, 2017)

» The Information: A Game Plan for VR and AR in 2017 (June 5th, 2017)

» Photo credit: Pexels / Bradley Hook

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