What Was Here?

Reflections on New Realities

The Moonshot crew has been giving our Barkley partners and clients guided tours of the new experiences afforded by virtual reality and augmented reality tech. Over the last three months, we’ve logged dozens of hours conducting immersion sessions in our “What is Here?” exhibit, and we’ve helped hundreds of people achieve their own virtual epiphanies. Now, as we get ready to wrap up this exploration and close up the exhibition, we’ve been reflecting on the things we’ve learned and observed.

Go Deep or Go Home

We included a range of VR and AR devices in the exhibit, from Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR to Microsoft Hololens and HTC Vive. Hands down, the Vive was the crowd favorite. Not only did it draw the most initial attention, it also got the most repeat use. While some were impressed with the Hololens’ mixed reality experiences, everyone loved being fully immersed in virtual environments and were wowed by the range of experiences the Vive offered. While we’ve seen a few “VR is dead again” backlash posts, but from our experience, once people have tried full-immersion VR, they come back for more.

Brain Over Mind

Some people balked. Some people timidly stepped out. Some people quickly fled back to the safety of the elevator or just flat out refused to walk out at all. Almost every time we took someone through Richie’s Plank Experience, we saw something like this:

A Typical Plank Experience Reaction

It turns out that when your brain is confronted with something that looks convincingly like a plank hanging 30 stories above the ground, it will try very hard to stop you from walking out on that plank. Even though your higher cortical functions know that you’re perfectly safe, your limbic system says a big, fat “Hell No!” More than any other, this one, simple experience produced the most succinct and compelling demonstration of VR’s potential to immerse people in another reality.

Gamers Get It Faster

A corollary to that observation is that some people seem immediately comfortable in virtual environments and have no trouble diving into or flying around them. At first, I thought this was a generational divide, but over time, I came to see this virtual facileness as an attribute of gamers. People who have spent a lot of time mentally immersed in 3D environments, such as console games, and who have virtually died and respawned many times, have no hesitation in exploring virtual spaces, even ones where virtual danger seems likely.

But Everybody’s Afraid of Something

We usually started off our sessions with a gentle experience like The Blu, a deep water ocean experience that most people find serene. Until that one time we started to run it for someone who was afraid of fish. But more than specific phobias, nearly everybody is afraid of looking like a fool, or having others harass them while their senses are otherwise occupied. That’s why the design of our virtual enclosure was so helpful. It screened people off from the outside work world, and gave them a safe space to explore and play.

It’s Not for Everyone

I set out a goal of getting every single partner in our building to try out VR and AR during the run of the exhibit. I naively thought everyone would rush to try it out. And many did. But despite weeks of invitation, exhortation, cajoling and pleading, there were holdouts. Some people just aren’t into it.

Watch Out for PPS

One of the reasons that some people have reservations about VR is motion sickness. My favorite quote on this topic comes from Jenna Pirog, the VR Editor of the New York Times. She says:

Your brain is actually tricked into thinking it’s having an experience and sometimes the effect can feel a bit like sea sickness. I’m sure tech will evolve beyond this at some point, but for now when you make VR films, you have to be careful of P.P.S. (potential puke shots).

Google Earth is Great but Full of PPS

Probably the most surprising (to me) hit among our collection of VR experiences was Google Earth VR. I had used it on my laptop and thought it was interesting, but not amazing. In VR, though, it’s another thing altogether. The ability to travel anywhere on Earth and get a remarkably realistic view of a location, thanks to satellite photography and some incredible math is awe-inspiring. But the ability to fly around your favorite cities comes at a cost. Google Earth produced more moments of vertigo and near nausea than any other experience in our collection.

Storytelling Struggles

Storytelling is a religion within advertising, and for creatives especially the need to tell stories in every medium they encounter is deep and instinctive. But VR has so far proven challenging for storytelling. As our friends at Framestore told us, “the user is the camera.” That fact alone means that film and video storytelling techniques may not translate to this new medium. And when user agency and interaction are factored in, holding a user’s attention and accommodating their presence and actions into a story becomes an incredibly daunting undertaking. There have been some good attempts, like Allumette, but the code has definitely not yet been cracked.

Why xR?

And that brings us to the question: “Why do VR, AR or MR at all?” A solid bit of advice we picked up along the way. As you contemplate an AR, VR, or MR concept, it pays to ask, “Why does this have to be done in xR?” Because if it can be done with another medium, it probably should be. In the months and years ahead, there are going to be plenty of ill-conceived translations of traditional communications idea into these new reality technologies. Only the ones that are inherently experiential, that demand a new, different or augmented reality will really be successful.

The Only Source of Knowledge

And finally, I’ll leave off where we began. As Einstein said, “Experience is the only source of knowledge.” The only way to really understand and appreciate the possibilities of these technologies is to experience them firsthand. We’ve felt it ourselves, and we’ve seen others go through it. If you haven’t yet made the jump yourself, dive in.