Opinion

We’re at the virtual reality tipping point… even if the headsets are still bulky and awkward

In the early 1990s, many people gawked at ugly and bulky mobile phones, unable to see just how much they'd change the face of communication. In this piece, Kaga Bryan argues we're at the same point now with virtual reality, and he's having a bit of déjà vu.

It’s 1994. My stepdad is in a department store, having a serious conversation into an exceptionally bulky mobile phone. I was about 13 at the time and remember vividly as the two girls at the cosmetic counter were mimicking him. To be fair, it was a highly unusual sight. It was “random” as their modern counterparts might say. Here was a man having an everyday conversation from the middle of a department store! Not at home. Not in a phone booth. It was a public display of incredibly odd behaviour.

Five years later, I was in my final year at high school enjoying a friend’s party when a Nokia 5110 rang loudly from my pocket. “Yuppie!” yelled the crowd. And a yuppie I would have been if I could have personally afforded such a device at that time, but it was my mum’s.

I don’t need to continue the story much further as you’re probably reading this on a smartphone or, at the very least you own one of the 15 million handsets in Australia.

My point is that I recently experienced a strong sense of déjà vu when witnessing people trying on Virtual Reality Headsets (or Head Mounted Displays – HMDs) recently. The HMDs are clunky devices. They’re strapped to one’s head whilst they engage with a world only they can see, oblivious to those around them. This is uncannily like my awkward, mid-90s department store experience. However, I’m now in a position to look forward and see that this is going to be a seriously, seriously big deal. But how and when? Well, that’s taken a little more exploration.

Virtual Reality, or VR, essentially removes the viewer from our shared reality and puts them in a world that is completely curated by a developer. This is always visual but is increasingly becoming audible and, with haptic feedback devices, even somewhat physical. Whilst this is an incredible advancement within the space of a few years and leaps ahead of what we had in the nineties (think Virtual Boy and Lawnmower Man), it is not without some serious hurdles. One of those is nausea.

The disconnect that occurs between what you’re seeing and what your vestibular system tells you what you should be feeling is not an easy one to fix. On top of this both leading HMDs in the market, the Oculus Rift and the Vive, both currently require very powerful (aka expensive) PCs to run a good experience.

So what is the must-have content that VR is delivering for such a costly outlay? Outside of gaming, it seems to be very little.

Now, enter Augmented Reality.

Augmented Reality, or AR, is the process of overlaying visual input onto the real world, in effect modifying or enhancing the world around you without removing you from it. Your vestibular system is happy because its link with reality remains undisrupted and the scope for real-time content in the world around you quickly exceeds gaming.

Anyone who has opened Snapchat and added the ubiquitous dog lens to their selfie has experienced AR. Likewise if you played Pokémon GO last year. Now consider that Snapchat’s recent IPO launch saw the company value close on the first day at US$33 billion and Pokémon GO reached over 100 million downloads, and it’s not a stretch to say that AR has some serious potential. In fact, current projections see the AR market reaching US$90 billion by 2020.

So there’s some early proof that AR can hold immense value given the right delivery method and it has been bubbling away for a while in the background, so why hasn’t the AR HMD really taken off? It’s all about timing.

Google Glass was too early and saw too much attention on a prototype. The current market leader Hololens is still for developer use and has far too narrow a field of view for average consumers.

Once we have a HMD that’s roughly the size of a regular pair of glasses or at least as light on the face, along with a greater field of vision, then we should hit an inflection point; the next “iPhone moment”.

The irony here is that HMDs will completely disrupt the smartphone market. No longer will we be hunched over a five-inch screen, tapping away with our thumbs, letter by letter as a source of input. We’ll be staring at the world around us and basking in all the information that we desire. Except now, it’s beautifully displayed around us in a wide variety of designs, controlled by using a much less laborious form of communication – our own eyes and voice.

For a better picture, let’s imagine your home. First we can remove all the screens. Your TV, tablet and desktop computer – gone. Why be limited to those when you can conjure one up anytime you choose, and at any size? Personally I’d like to lock my virtual screens to specific walls so I can look away without them following my field of view. Very handy for snack eating during a Netflix marathon.

I experienced this recently whilst wearing the Hololens, walking around a room viewing screens as if they were physically mounted on walls. I’m also looking forward to syncing a movie with whoever wants to share the viewing experience with me. That way, and unlike VR, we can look back to each other from time to time when a goal is scored or a funny punchline is delivered. Shared human experiences, enhanced by AR will be a crucial win for user experience.

Ok so let’s think about a day at work, all the information you need can be displayed wherever you want. Whether you choose to replicate your current workstation for the sake of 2017’s nostalgia or even have your email arrive via a virtual carrier pigeon will be up to you. Don’t like the office wallpaper? Change it. Add a Da Vinci sculpture to the foyer to brighten your mornings. It’ll be as cheap as downloading an app and no-one’s going to trip over it.

This new mix of reality will encompass all media that has come before it as well as being an entirely new format in itself, and new formats require new thinking. Much like the advent of the motion picture, we moved from theatric technique to what is now film direction and cinematography. We will need to learn the language of Augmented Reality. Herein lies a big question for marketers. How do we harness the power of branded communication in a new state of reality?

I’m sure billboards will explode to life and have multiple states or versions dependent on cookies in the viewer’s HMD, but why wouldn’t an advertiser rent out the entire building facade? I can’t imagine a better ad for an upcoming King Kong film than witnessing a giant gorilla scaling a skyscraper. Think of it as the Vivid Festival on steroids. Shopfronts can extend virtual catwalks, recipe videos can pop out of products as I lift them off supermarket shelves. The possibilities are endless.

As excited as I am for all this, I’m even more enthralled by the thought of what it means for creators and storytellers. We’re going to need people to design and animate that gorilla, to craft tropical islands for travel agents, to recreate the moon landing in your lounge room for Space Month.

Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey may be a contentious character, but when he said that Virtual Reality is likely to be the final form of media, I agree with him. I also believe its sibling, Augmented Reality, will be the bridge that takes us there.

Suddenly those bulky VR headsets don’t seem so silly after all.

Kaga Bryan is the content director at Publicis Media

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