DAY 3 @ SXSW 2017

What happened today in Austin that we can’t stop thinking about…


Virtual Reality as a technology is still emergent but several clear themes are converging in its near future. These themes present us with a metaphorical crossroads so to speak.

To put this crossroads into perspective, we stand at a pivotal moment in the development and progression of VR. As Chris Sutton put it, VR is having a “Gutenberg Press” moment.

Gutenberg Press invented in 1440

Just like the group of bewildered Germans crowded around the first printing press in 1440, nobody could fathom the impact of this watershed moment. Nor could they estimate the short or longterm impact of the printing press and mass manufacturing/distribution of text based media on society.

“What’s this gonna be?”

“What’s it for?”

“How will this impact society as it scales?”

Like this group of initial stargazers, we are left with many weighty, deep questions and only a few, shallow answers — hopeful, but basic prognostications for how the VR story will all play out in the next decade.

The Impact of Virtual Reality Has Seismic Potential

What we do believe (and what is hard to deny) is that impact of VR will be massive. You can liken the influence that the internet had upon people and society to the potential of VR.

If the web opened up an infinite space of information to everyone, than VR can open up a infinite world of sensorial experiences to the world.

The parallels between the web and VR can be found in their ability to communicate or convey information, but the way we process and experience this information (as well how and why it is created) couldn’t be more different.

Specifically, where they differ can be found in how VR experiences appeal to our brains and our relationship to reality. Information design (organisation, narrative) for the web is characterised by being heavily dictated (and purposely limited) by the creator, whereas the world of VR has been designed to allow a larger immersive world than the web could ever provide.

In VR, experiences are designed to be immersive and allow the user the freedom to define what their experience will be. Furthermore, VR experiences are much more closely tied to emotion and a visceral understanding of reality and our world because its sensorial nature. To paraphrase the subtle but critical ramifications of this thought:

“What we feel is visceral. Whereas what we read is intellectual.” — Chris Sutton, Facebook

One can make the argument that these sensorial driven experiences will ultimately be more powerful and compelling because of how closely tied our emotions are to our senses. The implications for this view extend far beyond the scope of this brief update and a cold Sunday afternoon in the back halls of the Austin JW Marriot. But they are surely worth extensive further consideration for those interested in the future.

So what are the current challenges for VR?

The limitations around inputs are the biggest fundamental challenge when approaching VR. Inputs can be defined as a location or a device through which, energy or information enters a system. Furthermore, inputs can encompass everything from full body haptic suits to VR headsets to mobile phones with limited ability to deliver inputs.

Inputs matter because they dictate the level of participation people can have with a VR experience. A person with a full body haptic suit will have a fundamentally different experience than a person on a desktop whose interaction will be mostly passive in nature because they are limited by their ability to input into the VR experience.

In a nutshell, inputs define participation.

Example of Asymmetrical Inputs — Google Cardboard vs Google Daydream Headset + Controller

Design For Many Devices

More specifically, the asymmetry of these inputs will be a major barrier for both designers and brands approaching VR. People will be interacting with different VR experiences using different devices — desktop, tablet, mobile, headset — that limit or enable the user in different ways.

The crux will be for brands and designers to find ways for all types of people to still participate in an experience regardless of their device they have on hand.

Where will it go?

There is a strong belief that we need to return to the basics and get them right. Are we making things to complicated and are we impeding progress as a result?

“Wow, what an amazing VR experience! You can now speak ‘whale’, but you can’t download it.” — Jessica Brillhart

This conversation speaks to technology limitations like download speeds and more powerful hardware, but it also informs how and where we should be focusing our efforts in VR. The point is clear. Without a smart, robust foundation, the opportunity to create amazing VR experiences will be fundamentally flawed or inhibited.

Should we be thinking Pong not Xbox One?

Instead of shooting for the moon and making full-sensorial experiences that boggle the mind, does the near future solution lie in more mundane and simple experiences?

Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves, “What is the most simplified experience we can make without asking the user to do to much in order for them to realise the power within a VR experience?”

Experts within the field are advocating a strategy moving forward for VR that feels more Nintendo Wii (or maybe even Pong) in nature than Playstation 360.

Finding inspiration for VR futures in Pong

Same old skillset, new title

One prediction for the future will be the emergence of a new multidisciplinary field necessary to create and manage VR experiences. For designers a new segment — call them the new “ZX” or “Spatial UX” — who specialise in interaction models that design people interacting and inputting into three dimensional spaces and open narratives.

An Emergent Discipline Within VR Project Teams

What we may not expect is that existing fields — art gallery curators, game-makers — are already thinking about the problems around spatial design and are already developing the skillsets, common language and best practices that will propel VR forward.

A gallery owner who has to consider sight lines for a person viewing art from different perspectives within a gallery space, mirrors the problem solving issues that VR designers at Google and Facebook attack daily.

Summary: We Must Be Patient

Although, VR as both concept and practice have been around since the 1970s and 1980s (some would argue even before that), the working history of VR is still quite nascent. In fact, basic VR hardware and software as we know it today has only been around for a few years. The point being is that we should exercise patience and embrace what this may become without being concerned by headlines or debates around VR fatigue.

Give Virtual Reality a chance?

Understanding and application of Virtual Reality will proliferate and the answers to some of those burning questions around impact, purpose and trajectory will become more abundantly clear as we progress.

Some people to follow on the subject:

Annie Laurie Malarkey @anniemalarkey from Made IN NY Media Center

Charlie Sutton @cactuswool from Facebook

Anders Oscarsson @aoscarsson from UsTwo

Jessica Brillhart @ Google

Track the panel conversation #VRxRoads

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Written by Mathieu Dauner

Associate Strategy Director, White Agency