The False Promise Of Virtual Reality


Virtual reality (“VR”) will transform entertainment, according to 21st Century Fox’s James Murdoch. The Economist notes that Alaska Airlines tested VR for some first class passengers recently, and other airlines are looking at it (no pun intended). This year’s Ready Player One movie was a hint that we’re at “the cusp of a media revolution,” according to TechCrunch.

Until the time we get VR chips inserted in our brains, I don’t think there’s much reality in all of the hype, for at least three reasons:

First, you don’t need sensory immersion to be immersed. Just ask anybody who read a good book lately, or closed their eyes while listening to a great song. It’s why SMS and Internet chat are so popular; users feel connected with one another in ways that often feel shockingly real. There’s no need to interact with a virtual face, or even an actual one, necessarily.

Second, reality’s killer app is touch, not sight or sound, and artificially providing even a passable verisimilitude is many, many years away (see chip implants above). Next comes smell, which is just about as difficult to replicate. I remember the Odorama scratch-and-sniff cards that were handed out at screenings of John Waters’ movie Polyester in the early 1980s (everything smelled vaguely like a fart), which illustrates reason 2.5: doing reality imperfectly can actually harm, or denigrate the experience instead of contributing to it.

Third, consumers aren’t asking for VR, and past promises of The Next Big Thing in entertainment technology have tended to disappoint. Look at how video gaming has hit a brick wall: there’s only so many permutations of first-person shooters (or RPGs) that people can play, and I say that as a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series. No amount of virtuality enabling technology has significantly expanded the market much beyond people who want to hear blood splattered on walls, and it’s dubious that visual or audio rendering would increase the popularity of online gaming, any more than it would change chat.

The real opportunity has nothing to do with virtuality, but rather providing stories that look, sound, taste, smell, and feel real because of what they’re about, and how that substance enables people to connect with them (and with one another).

Content is the “sixth sense” of experience, and perhaps the most important one. No amount of technowizardry can make a crappy story engaging (horrible movies just look horribly big on IMAX screens). Pipelines to consumers change, but stories don’t.

VR and augmented reality (“AR”) are making significant headway in the business world, as companies are using simulated experiences everywhere, from helping designers to envision their work, to enabling customers to see things before they get built or delivered. This is serious stuff that lives up to its promises, and then some. Use-cases are defined and satisfied.

This might suggest applications for giving consumers virtual tools they might actually need — imagine real time readouts on restaurant wait times, or robust supply chain backstories for clothing displayed on store shelves — but the data will be an overlay to reality, not a simulation of it.

VR has been The Next Big Thing since Jaron Lanier waxed poetically about its promise in the 1980s. That’s a long time with little to show in terms of real progress.

I believe it’s likely that we’ll get the enabling tech installed in our craniums someday…but until then, everything we’ve heard, and are likely to hear about VR as an entertainment medium amounts to a false promise.

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