Just about everyone agrees that the virtual reality cover on the August 17 issue of TIME featuring Oculus founder Palmer Luckey and the Oculus Rift was pretty silly. In many ways, it may have set back VR rather than pushed it ahead, in the same way that unflattering stories about Google Glass started a whole media narrative that Google still hasn’t been able to change.
What VR really needs is a fundamentally new type of experience that will transform it from a nerdy pastime or media curiosity into something so mainstream that your parents or grandparents might want to try it.
TIME’s new cover: Virtual Reality. Why it’s about to change the world https://t.co/1nbXSsF36w
— TIME.com (@TIME) August 6, 2015
The problem is that, right now, VR is still seen as a gaming experience. Even worse than that, it’s seen as a gaming experience for Silicon Valley nerds. At the recent E3 conference in Los Angeles, Oculus did nothing to dispel the notion that the near-term future of VR is in gaming. That seems to be the direction that a number of VR companies are headed – giving us better gaming experiences that involve our senses in more immersive experiences.
You can see where that’s headed – eventually, you’re going to get a giant virtual reality gaming arcade. Perhaps something like The Void, a VR theme park being built near Salt Lake City, Utah. The Void, scheduled to open next summer, plans to offer a number of different gaming experience loosely based around the ideas of war, flight, horror and medieval fantasy. The idea is to play games in a fully immersive experience, using a head-mounted display and wearable tech such as a vest and gloves. Entire rooms will be given over to immersive, arcade-like experiences for roving packs of gamers.
Sounds cool, however, as soon as you mention the phrase “theme park,” you’ve probably lost the hipster audience as well as all the suburban parents out there who dread the idea of paying mega-bucks for some kind of unproven entertainment experience for their kids. If you’re going to blow hundreds of bucks on family fun, why not just go to Orlando rather than packing the family off to Utah? (Although a day on the slopes in Park City might make for a nice adult reward for enduring a day at The Void.)
For now, the most likely prospect to bring VR into the mainstream is a new entertainment experience involving a major collaboration between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Filmmakers continue to experiment with VR – both for promotions and for the actual filmmaking. For example, we’ve already seen Jamwix Studio give us “Banshee Chapter,” the first feature film released specifically for Oculus Rift. Facebook is said to be partnering with major Hollywood studios. A-list actress Reese Witherspoon has experimented with VR and just about every big-name film festival these days will have some VR film content to promote.
The risk of a VR push into Hollywood, however, is that VR will simply become the new, geekier version of “3D” or “IMAX” – a clever marketing promotion to get people into cinemas and pay higher ticket prices, but nothing really groundbreaking. VR will just be seen as an incremental innovation, rather than something truly disruptive. That’s especially true if VR simply gets marketed as some type of “4D” experience and cheap cardboard VR viewers are handed out to filmgoers.
If games and films can’t attract the mainstream crowd, here’s another idea: virtual reality offerings that immerse us deeper into the real world, rather than into a fantasy virtual world. There have been a few experiments in creating VR documentaries (such as Spike Jonze’s virtual reality newscast on police brutality), and the next step is pushing on that concept even more, to make truly immersive experiences that take us more into reality, less into fantasy. Imagine living a newscast rather than just watching it.
The latest creative twist on this concept is SpaceVR, which is essentially virtual reality for would-be astronauts. Recently launched on Kickstarter, the project promises to send VR cameras to space if it’s successfully funded to the tune of $500,000. The main selling point of SpaceVR is that a 360-degree camera will be placed aboard the International Space Station, and then live 3D, 360-degree content will be beamed back to earth for use by VR headsets. On its website, SpaceVR hints that, by 2017, they could have VR content from the moon and by 2022, VR content from asteroids. For older Americans who still remember watching news of the Apollo missions, that type of VR experience could be compelling.
And, if all else fails, there’s still the chance that big box retailers will figure out a way to embed VR into the overall store experience. North Face, for example, has experimented with the Oculus Rift as a way to show customers what it’s like to participate in outside activities such as rock climbing and base jumping. Lowe’s, too, has experimented with VR for its stores. That type of experience could resonate with middle-aged and older customers, who could embrace the whole “try before you buy” aspect of VR. And, with extra discretionary income, these older customers might be willing to take a chance on using VR to sample new products, even if the whole promotional aspect might strike them as somewhat gimmicky.
While there are drawbacks to each of these innovative approaches to bring VR to the masses, there are simply so many competing versions of VR devices backed by top tech companies that it seems like one is bound to make it. You have Facebook, Sony, Samsung and Microsoft all offering different flavors of VR. Those aren’t obscure tech companies – those are huge, established companies with a lot of marketing firepower. If the gaming and entertainment approaches to VR don’t resonate with the mainstream consumer, the answer might be to focus less on virtual reality and more on just plain old reality.