More to VR than meets the eye

Although there have been many false starts over the years, the virtual reality (VR) industry is finally expected to hit the mainstream. In the wake of popular product launches from Oculus Rift, Sony’s PSVR and the HTC Vive, the 2016 VR Industry report predicted there will be as many as 37 million headsets sold to consumers by 2020: an astonishing figure.

Much of the discussion surrounding VR is based around home entertainment — predominantly in gaming experiences. While some very compelling VR experiences will be developed that will work very well within the confines of the living room, those looking for more active or visceral VR experiences will run up against constraints in this environment. And while there are many advantages to having VR in the home while you are wearing your expensive omni-haptic-feedback-holo-deck-crane-suits (including the peace of mind of not being seen), there are unexplored examples of location-based-entertainment (LBE) which combine VR with real-life scenarios. These help to create exciting new scenarios that have the potential to revolutionise the way we learn, play and socialise.

A prime example of LBE is the ever popular escape rooms, themed puzzle experiences where small groups must work together and solve clues to find their way out of a room within a time limit. Their popularity is largely the result of their low cost but high level of entertainment and immersion. Despite the drop in prices, off-the-shelf VR products are still out of the reach of many customers. However they are affordable for cinemas, theme parks and shopping malls, which is where we are starting to see an explosion of LBE utilising VR.

One of the most promising of these is called ‘The Void’, which you could describe as a VR experience centre. It layers VR technology over real-time, physical interactive environments and, in doing so, offers some suggestion as to other directions VR might travel in. Think of The Void as a gaming arcade where you become part of the experience, rather than just watch it happen through a screen. Players can interact with each other and their immediate environment as their movements are tracked by cameras in a warehouse sized area while feeling real visceral feedback from heat of a flame or the mist from a cliff edge.

A player interacts with a control panel in virtual reality, and feels the screen on his fingers.

Virtual reality arcades (or VRcades) are also starting to grow in popularity. In the 80’s computer gaming was made accessible to the first generation of users with a serried ranks of coin-operated consoles. Today this model is essentially extinct, but VR’s next wave of advancements could bring it back in some form, using custom made VR rigs with haptic feedback or motion simulators.

Whilst this could potentially be a model for mass usage of VR, The Void and other LBE suggest that VR is being combined with live, explorable experiences, which really push the potential of the medium. The operators of Thorpe Park, in the UK, have recently added a VR ghost train to their theme park: an immersive experience of being trapped on a runaway train with a sinister presence on board, created in collaboration with the TV illusionist, Derren Brown. This followed a similar grafting of VR onto a rollercoaster at Alton Towers in order to achieve the sensations of flying between planets.

IMAX is already rolling out VR pods in theatres and other public spaces, which promises some of the most incredible experiences to stand alongside movie releases as promotional material. One of the most recent experiences is the Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine, in which you can wield a lightsaber, repair the iconic Millennium Falcon and defend R2-D2 from incoming stormtroopers.

These are all promising developments for new brands and we will certainly see many more fascinating collaborations between the gaming industry, filmmakers, animation studios and VR hardware companies. We can already imagine a number of exciting possibilities.

Waterproof concepts of VR headsets, for example, are already being experimented with. Flash forward to your next trip to the swimming pool, VR Fridays could allow you to swim with giant sea creatures, visit the Great Barrier Reef or experience being shipwrecked with characters from the latest Pirates of the Carribean movie.

Elsewhere in Perspective we cover the future of AVs. What might happen though when autonomous vehicles and VR technology is combined? Imagine a pre-programmed autonomous car driving around a disused airport, transporting you into a high-speed car chase, swerving between oncoming traffic while you shoot bad guys from the back seat with a dummy gun with convincing recoil. The car is programmed to jolt as you are rammed by the virtual pursuers adding to the veracity of the experience.

Far from becoming an isolating experience, VR might provide different opportunities for collective fun. The huge popularity of massive multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft has created a generation of people comfortable with fantasy, people who socialise in digital worlds. Future iterations of companies like The Void could partner with Blizzard (makers of World of Warcraft) to create VR quests where they might partner with real people in huge environments, even spending multiple days inside.

While the distant embodiment of VR maybe the entire encompassing of body and mind in a fully immersive state, indistinguishable from reality, its immediate future will be fun, accessible and shared with other people, out in the real world. Much like the arcades of the 80’s that essentially became extinct as consoles brought high-end gaming experiences to the living room, the next wave of VR technology could, in some way bring it back.

Originally published at Plan.



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Plan is a product strategy consultancy. We help companies to navigate the early stages of innovation.