A still from WORLD ON A WIRE (1973), Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation

What is Virtual Reality?

Ogilvy Washington’s Lead Creative Technologist discusses what VR is, the current state of the technology, and where it’s heading.

Virtual Reality — an immersive technology that transports the user into a different environment. Often (though not always), this is simulated using a virtual reality headset. This article will discuss current consumer-grade virtual reality solutions.

Video demonstrating HTC Vive (Source: Valve)

What’s the big deal?

I’m bullish on virtual reality (VR).

I find it to be the most immersive medium; a technology uniquely capable of evoking empathy and emotion. Insights company Greenlight VR recently published results from a survey indicating that 71% of people feel that VR makes brands more modern, with 53% saying that they would be more likely to purchase from a brand that had a VR experience. Furthermore, preliminary data shows that people that were shown the 360º video experience Clouds Over Sidra by street teams were twice as likely to donate.

VR has the ability to transport people anywhere, whether it be across the world or across the galaxy, yet I also recognize that current VR headsets may look silly and isolate the user from her surroundings. This article is a discussion of the current state of virtual reality as of August 2016 and a look at where I think it is headed.

A (very) brief history of VR

Virtual reality has a long history best saved for another article, but has recently made a resurgence due to recent technological advancements in mobile display technology. You see, the screen in your smartphone has enabled virtual reality devices to become much less expensive than they previously had been.

Some may remember that virtual reality enjoyed a brief period of interest and popularity in the 1990s, with large expensive headsets in virtual reality arcades and even consumer flops like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy.

Source: Virtual Reality Society

However, it was smart phones that would ultimately lead to the resurgence of virtual reality as of late. Palmer Luckey’s Oculus VR company, originally a Kickstarter campaign acquired by Facebook, developed a head-mounted display (HMD) that capitalized on the lower cost of smaller high-resolution displays that had become so common in devices like Apple’s iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy. Ironically, it was mobile technology that would ultimately lead to the rebirth of virtual reality.

Types of Virtual Reality

As of August 2016, there are three main types of virtual reality experiences available to most consumers:

  • Google Cardboard-based devices
  • Specialized smartphone headsets
  • High-end computer-based virtual reality

Google Cardboard-based devices
Based on an open specification that Google released, Google Cardboard devices are inexpensive (around $15 and as low as $2 when purchased in bulk) and are meant to have a user’s smartphone placed in the device. The user then holds the device up to their eyes after launching the application to view the experience. Content producers such as New York Times VR and DiscoveryVR have created 360º video experiences which allow users to watch prerecorded content and turn their heads to see all around a scene. While simple, these devices are currently the most common VR devices and have the least barrier to entry due to their low cost, but lack the sophistication and believability of more expensive solutions.

Specialized smartphone headsets

Samsung Gear VR

Devices such as the Samsung Gear VR ($99), developed in partnership with Oculus, are specialized head-mounted displays that contain specialized technology to more accurately track the user’s head position. Currently most of these devices require specific brands and types of phones to work, and as such limit the prevalence of the devices, however the experiences for these devices can be more immersive than their Google Cardboard counterparts.

Google Daydream

Google has announced Daydream (available in Fall 2016), an open-source blueprint solution that it hopes to popularize across all many future Android devices. Manufacturers will be able to create their own hardware based on this specification, which requires hardware manufacturers to meet certain quality standards. The Daydream specification includes a head-mounted device for a smartphone as well as a simple motion-tracked controller.

High-end Computer-based virtual reality

HTC Vive

Devices such as the Oculus Rift ($599) and HTC Vive($799) are among the most powerful consumer-level virtual reality solutions. Both devices require extremely powerful computers to run, but provide the most believable experiences. Both devices support the use of controllers that enable users to react with the virtual environment around them, with the HTC Vive currently offering users the ability to physically walk around the room and manipulate and interact with objects in the experience.

Which one is right for my organization?

As is often the case, the answer to this question depends on the goal of the experience. If the goal is to reach as many people as possible as inexpensively as possible, then a Google Cardboard solution may be the right solution. However, if the experience is meant to be showcased at an event or your audience has access to a higher-end virtual reality device, then a computer-based experience is a great fit.

As with most mediums, high-quality content needs to be priority number one. Simply shooting some video of you bombing down a hill on your snowboard is more than likely to evoke a strong sense of motion sickness with a large swatch of your audience. However 360º video, when shot well, is a highly effective medium, especially when combined with social change campaigns in documentary-style experiences. High-quality 360º video can be shot relatively inexpensively (starting around ~$15k+) by an experienced crew, but ensuring a compelling narrative that doesn’t feel forced is essential to a successful product.

More interactive experiences like those found on the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift typically require a larger budget. Why? Because fully interactive experiences tend to require experienced video game designers and developers to create. This requires a degree of technical complexity that is completely different from 360º video. Typical budgets for these types of interactive experiences from high-quality studios tend to run $200k+ depending on the complexity of the project.

The fully interactive experiences for HTC Vive and Oculus are often built using cross-platform gaming engines, so it may be possible to adapt your HTC Vive or Oculus Rift experiences to the less-expensive Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard devices. However you must keep in mind that alternative forms of navigation and interaction will be required

The Future of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a technology in its infancy. Palmer Luckey likens the current virtual reality devices to the early days of the smartphone. “They’re almost like the Palm Pilots and the Treos of virtual reality.”

VR will continue to develop as artists, scientists, and users experiment and share ideas. As the technology continues to evolve, we will eventually benefit from smaller form-factors, less costly hardware, and the removal cables and wires from headsets. Virtual reality devices will look much different in ten years than they do today.

Storytellers will figure out the best methods for transporting audiences into a scene. Users will be able to walk around in video, having the story react to them in realtime (see link, it’s amazing). Social interactions will evolve and develop, enabling us to collaborate with people across the world, and our desire to connect with others will be fulfilled with stunning realism.

There are many technological and creative hurdles to overcome, but I am truly excited to see what lies ahead.

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