Virtual Reality: Trend Diagnosis

The ‘buzz’ around Virtual Reality during 2016 has been unmissable. Consumer headsets are being launched and the market is starting to shape up, for real.

Yet, it is not the first time that there has been buzz about VR. In November 1992, popular magazine Computer Gaming World predicted ‘Affordable VR by 1994’. If one looks at Google Books Ngram viewer data below, it would seem that this, ‘the year of VR’, was already back in 1998:

How VR and Virtual Reality have occurred as phrases in a corpus of English language books between 1900 and 2008.

The above shows how the trend towards virtual reality for mass market has existed already in the past decades, but has fallen into oblivion. Nevertheless, 2016 has marked the year a number of Virtual Reality consumer headsets are being launched, as past technological limitations seem to be resolved.

Trend diagnosis methods enable us to sketch out a comprehensive, research-based trend description of VR that outlines the various contexts which have impact on its adoption. This piece, then, is about how to map trends and their multiple contexts and forces influencing them.

There is no doubt that eighteen years later, VR is trending again across online media:

‘VR’ news search interest according to Google Trends, from May 2011 to May 2016.

This speaks for the lasting allure of what this particular technology is trying to accomplish: sensory, immersive experiences through technology. The effort to make VR ‘happen’ is driven by a human desire for a heightened sense of presence in a virtual environment. Or a virtual presence in a real environment, which is what the VR documentary and VR sports broadcasts are all about.

The dioramas of the 19th century already tried to achieve this kind of transportation to another place, and since 1962’s Sensorama, a mechanical, multi-sensory device meant to pave way for ‘cinema of the future’, engineers and artists have tried to achieve it through computer technology.

Especially the 1990s produced a number of less than satisfactory product launches, such as Virtuality (1991), a networked entertainment system for game arcades, and Nintendo’s Virtual Boy (1995) for the home console market. There is no doubt that VR was a trend already then, but as we remember, something hindered its way to being adopted as a social convention. In the terms of trend research, there were too many disabling contexts. In the broader context of consumer electronics, VR’s process towards becoming normalised was halted. Let’s look at what that means.

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What are trends, anyway?

Much of foresight and trend analysis literature lack clarity in defining what exactly is meant by ‘trend’. A starting point for trend definition that I go by is that trends can be used to label phenomena that intuitively, according to one’s expert analysis and monitoring of a particular field (such as VR), feels of importance.

For example, when looking at SteamSpy data on HTC Vive and Oculus titles, plus a breakdown of Gear VR apps, I have identified a trend I’m calling ‘Experience Genres’. This observation refers to an opportunity for developers to increasingly look at developing new genres, building on the qualities of so-called ‘walking simulators’ in the video game space, where presence and cognitive processing of the virtual space are more prominent parts of the experience, instead of the typical cause-and-effect and goal-directed agency that games are good at. As we will learn later, these kinds of developments represent enabling contexts for trends to move from the periphery towards the mainstream.

Emergence of ‘walking simulators’, such as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (pictured), have created enabling contexts to VR experiences that do not adhere to typical game conventions yet borrow some of the tropes. Image captured by the author from the game, courtesy of The Chinese Room / Sony Computer Entertainment.

This observation is an example of an individual phenomenon that I am finding important in the context of how VR adoption and content develops. Thus, we can call it a trend. More about the ‘content’ trends in the VR space in an upcoming post!

Trends have a lifecycle

Trend researchers discuss trends as socio-cultural innovations, which is a perspective that lends itself to be applied for foresight contexts, such as creating product and use scenarios to help think about alternate futures.

In trend research, it is essential to understand trend as a dual-natured process where transgression — something out of the ordinary, such as an innovation — combines with normalisation, e.g. the innovation becoming commonplace. Trend diagnosis is seen as a means of identifying such possible ’future normalities’. (Interested readers, see literature at the end.)

The notion of trend lifecycle with a set of phases is widespread in trend and foresight literature. A trend lifecycle can also end into a ‘cliche’, ‘cultural icon’ or ‘archetype’, or possibly oblivion.

In order to analyse trends and their lifecycle, trends’ particular characteristics need to be considered. Such characteristics include psychological needs and motivations, which become embedded in trends. In relation to VR, the ongoing human fascination with being transported to another place, which VR aims to fulfil in a more sensory fashion than preceding technologies, constitutes such need embedded to its ‘trendy’ nature. VR marketers and proponents, quite obviously, are putting lot of energy into making it seem as exceptional and new as possible, while simultaneously, they are evangelising for it to become ‘normal’, i.e. mass market.

Another characteristic for trends is that they have direction, and because of that, one trend can be an inverse of another, and a new trend could occur dialectically in relation to another one. In general, trends tend to have a life-cycle and in order to be significant, a trend should have identifiable potential for changing the future.

Trends are emerging phenomena that intuitively feel important and have multiple contexts, a direction, and a lifecycle.

How to spot trends?

If a trend can be quantified, it is already too late from a strategic management point of view. Therefore, trend analysts need to focus on aspects that would alert them to trends earlier on.

This comes down to how the ‘new’ can be identified and what constitutes it. Subsequently, it is innovations that we need to be identifying and monitoring.

In practice, this means probing their diffusion into the market. Diffusion is about whether the new will become widespread to an extent that is significant.

To get a grip of this process, one needs to start identifying abnormalities and the forces that drive the innovation under focus, such as VR, towards normalisation and onwards to becoming a social convention.

Research has established that

trends are especially likely to develop into break-throughs when emerging technology aligns with favourable developments in society and culture.

This another way of saying that the timing needs to be right for a trend to begin normalising, rather than falling into oblivion. As well as alignments with culture, it is discontinuities that might reveal where a trend is heading (think the walking simulator example above), and thus forcing an evaluation of what surprises a discontinuity might bring with it. If a trend analyst is able to spot a discontinuity, this can be formulated and leveraged into useful business intelligence. Let us imagine one of the current VR headset developers pulling out of the market — what consequences would this kind of discontinuity trigger?

Discontinuities and anomalies might reveal where a trend is heading.

Multiple contexts influence trends

The first step towards sensitivity to such trend-generating discontinuities is to understand trends as combinations of multiple contexts. This kind of complexity proves the point that trends are part of the wicked problem space that looking at the future presents, but it does provide a starting point to a task that might seem quite intangible and overwhelming to begin with.

Second, it is key to understand trends’ paradoxical nature in how they simultaneously underline the new, while indicating potential diffusion as well. In product terms, this might become to mean contradicting features. Post-it notes have often been mentioned in this context in that they appear contradictory: both adhesive and removable. Yet, they have become an omnipresent product. Walking simulators are games, yet they are limited in their interactivity, as are some ‘experiential’ VR applications.

In conclusion, this means that trends cannot simply be understood to have one direction but rather multiple ones, possibly pulling the phenomenon into different directions. There are also countertrends. In trend diagnosis, a good rule of thumb is that if one has not been able to identify a single countertrend in relation to the phenomenon under scrutiny, the analysis probably is not sufficient.

Does VR have contradicting, positive features that might align it with these contexts? In the age of social media, how can there be an emerging entertainment and communication medium that is largely solitary in nature?Is the isolated nature of VR experiences actually a strength, or does it drive developers into seeking ways to design more social, shared VR experiences?

Do we believe there is a simultaneous countertrend towards physical, non-mediated experiences, say, in the form of escape rooms? Or, is the popularity of (seemingly) simple mobile games — think Candy Crush but also Game of War, which are almost celebratory in their deliberate ignorance of 3D and sensory immersion, another countertrend — or, do they represent a trend that VR itself is now being revived to counter?

Does the recent success of Pokemon GO, an Augmented Reality mobile game, present a countertrend to VR? Is this based on the potential of AR applications as casual and inclusive, versus the exclusive nature of current VR devices and their price points?
Has Nintendo’s Pokemon Go awakened a countertrend to VR?

These questions, while they do not have definite answers, represent examples on how to approach trend analysis with the aim of creating a holistic view. One of the focuses of my research is to formalise and facilitate these analytical processes with tools that make them more approachable, less complex for e.g. executives in game studios to embrace.

After previous failed normalisations, VR is in a revival state

Trend normalisation towards mainstream acceptance is an important force. Yet it is important to realise that it is not a deterministic force: Normalisation might stop or suffer a backlash, or there might be a revival. The latter is especially relevant in the context of VR, a technology which has tried to get into the sphere of normalisation for a number of decades now.

We are clearly living the revival phase of VR as a trend.

In a case like this, the question then becomes, what new contexts have come into play? These might be both enabling contexts, and developments where disabling contexts — such as high manufacturing and retail costs — have disappeared. The latter tends to be the case with technological break-throughs where previous technological limitations have disappeared and consequently enable better opportunities for diffusion.

This is where VR is currently at: even if consumer prices for the headsets still are too high for the mainstream, they are being produced at a mass scale, and early adopter cohorts rank at tens of thousands, or with mobile, even million plus units.

Yet, VR has preventing contexts, such as anecdotes of nausea, and technical computer requirements that go well beyond mainstream machines, as well as anomalies, such as documentaries shot with 360 degree video and distributed via VR platforms, with limited interactivity yet with definite capability to create strong sense of presence, and for example, elicit empathy towards life-worlds outside our comfort zones in powerful ways.

VR speaks to an ongoing human fascination with being transported to another place. A number of previous technologies have attempted to produce a similar sensation.

How would VR reach normalisation?

According to research, there are three forces that drive normalisation:

  • What is first seen as ’abnormal behaviour’ becomes the behaviour of a broader audience,
  • a change in value schemes takes place, i.e. even individuals that do not adopt a certain practice do accept and treat it as normal, and
  • when the practice is spreading, it tends to lose its extreme forms and adopts more mass-compatible flavours.

It is quite straightforward to project these forces into what we are witnessing happening with VR today and tomorrow: broader diffusion takes place, genre conventions will be established, audiences will diversity to the point that ‘VR’ is not really a meaningful prefix anymore.

The author’s 77-year old mother trying VR.

At least for me, that does not take away from how fascinating this process will be, and how intellectually challenging it is to predict what will be the actual pathways through of that process. What is particularly interesting to me is how the substance of VR applications will evolve from the early ‘extremities’ — can anyone name one? — when proven tropes for VR game and app design have begun to emerge.

It might be that the extremities were actually the failed past VR product generations. On the other hand, it is in communities like Reddit where one can observe signals for future directions.

Creative Foresight

This ties into the overall challenge for scholars or business practitioners who try to analyse entertainment phenomena: Their essence as creative practice has historically made predicting ‘the next big thing’ even more difficult than in other, more utilitarian contexts: Creative foresight is a risky business.

To mitigate some of the riskiness, we need a certain shift of perspective and awareness of the ambiguity of the subject matter — trends in content and interaction do not necessarily follow linear, predictable paths.

Yet, genre studies in film especially have established the notion of genre cycle where a genre goes through a cycle of primitive, classical, revisionist, and self-reflexive or parodical stages. Similar developments have been seen with game genres (think e.g. the first-person shooter) but the question of which genre returns to the prime of popularity, and how genres mix to create new ones, has been a messier affair.

Next: Trends in current VR games

Despite the elusive nature of predicting entertainment permutations, we can shed light on this issue by looking at current content trends in VR. Regarding VR games, this can be approached by conducting analysis into the genre breakdown of current titles published. This allows us to identify both the dominant genres and potential opportunities, i.e. where the market is not nearing saturation yet. Even more importantly, such analysis has potential to shed more light on undiscovered or ignored genres that might be worth exploring. Tune in to the second part of the article, soon.

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F. Liebl and J. O. Schwarz, “Normality of the future: Trend diagnosis for strategic foresight”, Futures 42 / November 2010.

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