17 Jan 2019

Trends that didn’t trend in 2018: Virtual Reality

2018 was supposed to be VR’s big year. But then again, so was 2016, and then 2017… It seems like VR still has a long way to go before we’re surrounded by it. However, 2018 did see the VR device marketplace mature into three pricing categories: ​

  1. ​ Cheap smartphone-powered headsets like Google Daydream (£50) or Samsung Gear VR (£120), which you may have seen bundled into phone offers during the wild ride that was last year’s extended Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales period.
  2. Slightly more expensive standalone VR handsets such as Oculus Go (at around £200) which don’t require a smartphone or other devices to operate.
  3. High-end devices like Oculus Rift (£400) and HTC Vive (£500) which need a powerful PC to run the games.
This shows that VR is obviously commercially viable, but more needs to be done to ensure mass adoption takes off. To do this, VR needs to tackle these three challenges:
 
  1. “Why would I?” There is a distinct lack of appreciation amongst consumers of the value in VR.
  2. “I already have enough screens.” VR is competing against the more social experience of consuming entertainment content on ‘traditional’ flat screen devices, ranging from mobile phones to HD TVs.
  3. “Is there anything to do?” There may be a growing market for VR devices, but this growth is hampered by a lack of quality content available.
The first challenge can be easily remedied by creating opportunities for people to trial devices. This must be led by both hardware manufacturers and tech developers, in order to manage the challenges that come with bringing new products to market. It’s only once you’re able to show off the product and software simultaneously, that VR’s potential is at its most powerful. Imagine Nintendo without Super Mario. Without Super Mario, Nintendo just makes various grey consoles. You need both the platform and the experience alongside.

The solution to the second challenge follows on from this. Once people can immerse themselves in VR experiences and truly understand the benefits, the switch to using VR instead of  watching or playing on traditional devices becomes more likely. However, this is not the only way VR can grow - it doesn’t necessarily have to take over from traditional screens. Consumer behaviour hasn’t fully settled on VR. What may eventually be more likely is that people end up preferring to experience VR content in solitary environments outside the home. For example, on the bus or while being driven around in our autonomous vehicles of the future. In this case the catalyst could be 5G’s introduction later this year and into 2020.

Finally, the third challenge is a ‘chicken anOpen in full sized egg’ problem. Not enough people use the technology to justify developing content specifically for it. This leads to a lack of appetite for the technology, and so on.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel: There are over 1,000 apps for the Samsung Gear VR. YouTube’s dedicated VR channel - which has 3 million subscribers - contains playlists totalling around 3,500 VR videos. And the PlayStation Store currently offers around 30 free-to-try VR experiences.

Content producers are starting to figure out how they optimally create for the 360-degree viewing experience. It’s a slower journey but the industry is moving in a positive direction.

A stepping-stone on this journey is how content is later moulded into a VR environment. As far back as 2015, Netflix launched a VR app that allows you to watch any of its content in one of two environments: You could choose to place yourself in a living room, featuring a virtual TV screen above a fireplace, or a ‘void’ in which the only thing on display is the content you are watching. The screen, strapped an inch away from your eyes, had a similar effect to being sat in front of an IMAX cinema’s giant screen. But it isn’t providing the full experience of immersive 360 degree video. In fact, excluding a promo for Stranger Things, Netflix haven’t produced anything specifically for a VR viewing experience. Content can be used for VR, but it’s a stepping-stone to producing VR-only content

Creating for a VR experience, fictional or otherwise, is significantly more challenging than producing traditional linear content. It means having to let go of control over how the viewer experiences the story. This has the knock-on effect of taking the commercial success of VR content out of the hands of its producers.

The viewer may decide to look away during a key scene, therefore potentially missing a key nonverbal cue between two characters which then sets up the rest of the story. Or the viewer may decide they want to wander off and explore another area of the virtual scene, and thereby messing with the pacing of the content.

Open in full sizeThe audience doesn’t necessarily know what they want to see or, more importantly, what they’ve missed. This can negatively impact their enjoyment of what they’re watching, and therefore their willingness to recommend it to others – hitting the producers’ pockets. This echoes criticism recently directed at Bandersnatch, Black Mirror’s latest episode which experiments with a nonlinear choose-your-own-plot film: More choice for the viewer doesn’t necessarily mean a better story.

So, let’s see how 2019 plays out. It may take a while longer than the 12 months ahead for VR to find resolution for each of the three challenges. I’ll be keeping an eye out and will revisit the subject later this year.


Max Askwith is Global Digital & Innovation Director