Is 2016 the year that virtual reality (VR) finally makes its breakthrough as a mainstream technology? That’s a question for its evangelists and sceptics to argue about, and there are plenty in both camps.
With Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset now available to pre-order, Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive on their way, and millions of cheap Google Cardboard headsets out in the wild already, this year will see a barrage of experimentation around VR.
Stepping back from the hype, there are three big questions – really real questions, you could say – about VR’s potential, and as the answers emerge in 2016, we’ll have a much better idea of whether this time round, the tech will be a hit or a flop.
How mainstream is this technology really going to be?
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg didn’t spend $2bn buying Oculus VR to release a niche headset for high-end PC owners, even though that’s pretty much what its first commercial version – retailing for $599 plus the price of a powerful PC (if needed) – will be.
“One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people,” wrote Zuckerberg in March 2014, when he announced the acquisition. Facebook sees VR as the next big computing platform, but that will depend on it becoming a truly mainstream device.
Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey has acknowledged the challenge. “Most people don’t have computers with high-end graphics cards. In the future, that’s going to change: give it five or six years, and most computers will be capable of running good virtual experiences,” he said at the Web Summit conference in December 2015.
“Right now it’s going to be this niche just because of the equipment … but you can still sell many millions of units.”
He’s right on the former claim. Chipset maker Nvidia predicted in December that in 2016, only 13m PCs will have the graphical welly to run virtual reality – less than 1% of the 1.43bn PCs in use globally this year.
VR isn’t all about the PCs though. Sony has sold 35m PlayStation 4 consoles, and will be hoping to sell a few million PlayStation VR headsets to those gamers. But VR’s path to the mainstream may be more about the devices we carry around in our pockets: smartphones.
Analyst firm SuperData has predicted that we’ll spend $5.1bn on VR hardware and software in 2016, but that most of this will be on “cheap mobile VR devices” like Google Cardboard, the sub-$30 headset that smartphones slot in to.
Luckey isn’t a fan, having recently described Google Cardboard as “muddy water” compared with the “fancy wine” of Oculus Rift, but that muddy water may be the current that takes VR to hundreds of millions of people in the coming years.
YouTube introduced 360-degree videos in March, and followed up in November with a format called VR video, for clips designed to be watched using a Google Cardboard headset, providing a sense of depth rather than just the ability to pan around. Facebook, too, is already showing 360-degree videos in the news feed within its smartphone app.
Getting VR hardware into people’s hands (or, rather, on to their faces) is the first barrier to the technology’s success, but it’s important to realise that it’s as much about phones as it is about headsets and high-end PCs.
Will VR really be about more than games?
When Oculus Rift first appeared as a $2.4m Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2013, it was all about the games. “The first truly immersive virtual reality headset for video games.”
When it ships this spring, it’ll come with two games: Lucky’s Tale and EVE: Valkyrie, with the promise of “more than 100 titles available by the end of 2016”. Some of the world’s top console, PC and mobile developers are working on VR games for the Rift and PlayStation VR.
And yet … VR will be about more than games. Zuckerberg was certainly thinking beyond gaming when he announced Facebook’s Oculus acquisition.
“This is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences,” he wrote. “Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”
Already, several non-gaming uses are emerging to the fore: education and training; VR films; music and sports. Plus, inevitably, porn.
At the Web Summit, Luckey seemed particularly keen on education. “There’s a lot of potential for virtual reality in the education industry,” he said. “Classrooms are broken. Kids don’t learn the best by reading books.”
Perhaps not views that’ll endear him to some teachers, but Luckey went on to suggest that VR could be a way to offer children virtual field-trips to places they wouldn’t be able to visit in the real world.
“Even if visiting Paris for real is something that’s better [than doing it with VR] it’s not something that eight, nine, 10 billion people in the world are going to be able to do,” said Luckey, Note, Google has already been trying to get schools to use its field-trip simulation software Expeditions with Google Cardboard headsets.
Some of the educational projects already unveiled – the British Museum’s use of VR to transport visitors back to the bronze age; Irish startup VR Education’s VR app based on the Apollo 11 moon landing; David Attenborough’s work with a special VR exhibit at London’s Natural History Museum; and NASA’s PlayStation VR demo of how VR could help its operators practise using robotic arms on the International Space Station – are among the more convincing arguments for modern VR being about more than just games or gimmicks.
VR films – whether fiction or documentary – is another fascinating area for experimentation already, particularly on the journalism side.
The New York Times’ VR app has featured films about child refugees and candlelit vigils after the Paris attacks; producer RYOT’s Welcome to Aleppo documentary focused on Syrian refugees, while another of its films focused on the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake; ABC News launched a VR film about North Korea’s anniversary march; while “godmother of VR” Nonny de la Peña used VR to reconstruct the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old African American shot dead by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012.
The film-maker Chris Milk has also made a series of documentary films pitching viewers into stories – a refugee camp in Jordan, Ebola survivors in Liberia, a massive protest march in New York – as if they were there. Many of these filmmakers and journalists see VR as a way to cut through viewers’ complacency about disaster or war stories.
“Instead of sitting through 45 seconds on the news of someone walking around and explaining how terrible it is, you are actively becoming a participant in the story that you are viewing,” RYOT’s Christian Stephen told the Guardian.
On the fiction side, Oculus set up its own Story Studio division with a team of veterans from the film industry. It launched a short VR film called Lost in January 2015, and is working on Henry – “a heartwarming comedy about a loveable hedgehog”.
Meanwhile, Lucasfilm has experimented with Google Cardboard and a series of short VR videos called Jakku Spy, released before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while US startup Baobab Studios raised $6m in December to finish its first animated VR film Invasion!.
However, Pixar’s co-founder Ed Catmull has cast doubt on VR’s suitability for narrative fiction. “It’s not storytelling. People have been trying to do [virtual reality] storytelling for 40 years. They haven’t succeeded,” he said in December 2015.
“We have a whole industry which is gigantic: games. Games is very successful. It’s its own art form though, and it’s not the same as a linear narrative. Linear narrative is an artfully directed telling of a story, where the lighting and the sound is all for a very clear purpose. You’re not just wandering around in the world.”
For some creatives, though, this is exactly the point: viewers will be able to explore the margins of their films, rather than simply follow the standard camera.
“If you’re doing the job right, there will be layers of storytelling that can’t be consumed in a single viewing. For example, there could be a foreshadowing of future events or events on the margins that could be just as thrilling or tense,” film director Gil Kenan said in October 2015, welcoming the comparison to multi-layered Russian novels. “I’m trying to be the Tolstoy of the big screen!”
Can our bodies and minds really cope with VR?
The third big challenge for virtual reality concerns what it does to us as humans – a question that’s about more than motion sickness. Although that’s an important part of it.
“The elephant in the room is disorientation and motion sickness,” said Oculus VR chief executive, Brendan Iribe, in November 2014, albeit during an interview where he was claiming his company would crack the problem, while rivals may not.
“We’re a little worried about some of the bigger companies putting out product that isn’t quite ready,” he said. “We’re encouraging other companies, particularly the big consumer companies, to not put out a product until they’ve solved that problem.”
Avoiding motion sickness remains a challenge. Witness the BBC reporter Zoe Kleinman’s experience at the CES show this week, when she had to tear a headset off mid-demo for fear of throwing up – and this for a journalist who had been “quietly impressed” with VR, having tried several headsets before.
The Wall Street Journal recently laid out some of the health warnings that come with the current generation of VR technology:
“The experience can cause nausea, eyestrain and headaches. Headset makers don’t recommend their devices for children. Samsung and Oculus urge adults to take at least 10-minute breaks every half-hour, and they warn against driving, riding a bike or operating machinery if the user feels odd after a session.”
Such warnings are sensible, but could be a barrier to mainstream takeup of VR. But the bigger issues may be about what these virtual experiences do to our minds, rather than our bodies.
Milk has drawn attention to the fact that the “reality” part of VR may pose important questions for human beings.
“Think about how the technology scales, to the point where you’re eventually incorporating other senses at further and further levels of fidelity,” he said. “What you’re talking about at some point is more than a medium, but is fundamentally an alternative level of human consciousness.”
Milk was thoughtfully plotting out the potential of VR rather than scaremongering, but questions about the long-term effects of VR and the related augmented-reality (AR) field are being debated – even if sometimes those arguments (like the motion-sickness discussion) are being wielded against competitors.
The CEO of Google-funded AR firm Magic Leap criticised “stereoscopic 3D” headsets in February 2015, for example, suggesting that they “can cause a spectrum of temporary and/or permanent neurologic deficits”.
“Our philosophy as a company (and my personal view) is to ‘leave no footprints’ in the brain. The brain is very neuroplastic – and there is no doubt that near-eye stereoscopic 3D systems have the potential to cause neurologic change,” he said.
Stanford University’s Prof Jeremy Bailenson has expressed similar caution about how VR may change humans.
“Am I terrified of the world where anyone can create really horrible experiences? Yes, it does worry me,” he said in October. “I worry what happens when a violent video game feels like murder. And when pornography feels like sex. How does that change the way humans interact, function as a society?”
There’s also the question of isolation, especially when VR involves shutting yourself off from the world around you by wearing a headset. When Oculus VR launched its Social Alpha app in October 2015, the promotional image seemed a rather chilling vision of how we might watch TV together in the future:
Too many of us already struggle to focus our attention on the friends and family we’re physically with, because we’re staring down at a smartphone or tablet screen. There’s an argument – one that perhaps could be better addressed by VR evangelists – that virtual reality is a next level of physical isolation.
Some of them argue that it’s the opposite, although the words chosen by Luckey in a recent Vanity Fair interview raised questions of their own: “There could be a world where VR replaces most real-world interactions,” he said. “What will happen is for many low-value interactions, VR will replace a lot of those.”
Some of those “low-value interactions” might be more important to us than we think. But that’s why it’s going to be important to talk a lot about the effect VR has on humans and our social interactions – for better and for worse.
There’s plenty to discuss about virtual reality as a technology, but its future will be defined as much by its social benefits and costs.
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