As hundreds of frustrated virtual reality startups will bemoan, the adoption rate of virtual reality has been significantly slower than expected. While many manufacturers are not releasing public numbers, some experts have identified that the expected "flood" of VR headsets into mainstream America has been more akin to a trickle.
While cost, availability and compatibility with existing consumer computers are certainly factors in the slower-than-expected growth rate, it can be argued that one of the biggest barriers to widespread adoption is the isolation and singularity of the medium. Luckily, a little creativity can blow open the potential of VR and redefine our expectations within – and outside of – the virtual headset.
Every media and entertainment experience to date has had one thing in common: It is a shared experience. When you're watching a movie in a theater with friends, you are all viewing the same content, from the same perspective, within the same environment (and likewise for watching a sporting event, concert or television program). VR, however, doesn't create this intimate sense of community and closeness. The medium is a victim of its own immersion; the individual wearing the VR headset is going to have a significantly different experience from those who may be viewing that experience. Many VR software developers, including Facebook and Valve, are working to create online multiplayer gaming experiences as well as communities in which individuals can join others in virtual space. However, I believe that the isolating experience of the individual wearing the head-mounted device is simply a barrier to expansion. And I think there are ways to solve that problem.
At my design studio, we have found brand adoption of virtual reality to be picking up steam. That said, we constantly hear the same refrain: "How can we get more people to experience this?" or "How can we get multiple people to participate at the same time?" A compelling solution we have begun utilizing is the asymmetric VR experience, or a solution that allows those without VR headsets to participate in the virtual experience in some form or facet. For example, a guest in a VR world who is suddenly in virtual peril may depend on his friend who is holding a mobile device to direct him to safer ground within the virtual world.
There are more than a few different approaches that can be taken, and those in our field who create custom VR experiences should keep the three Cs in mind: command, collaborate and compete. A single activation may focus on one of these, or it may combine the approaches in a number of ways. This is a custom approach that we developed to help create unique experiences with groups.
To put this three-C approach into context, a "command" experience would have the user in the VR headset acting as captain (think Kirk or Picard, whichever you prefer), setting tasks for three of his teammates outside of the headset to achieve in order to save him from certain death. This experience could infuse the "collaborate" approach if all three non-VR participants were working together as equals to achieve a common goal, such as diffusing a live bomb in minutes. The "compete" element would mean that regardless of the outcome, each teammate would be scored separately based on an assigned task and its completeness. For example, the bomb may have been diffused successfully, but only the two top-scoring participants would move onto the next level to solve an even more difficult task with the captain.
This approach does not have to be complex in nature, and any number of input devices can be used in order to make an asymmetric VR experience work at the event level. All it takes is a willing participant, their mobile device and access to Wi-Fi. While mobile devices are the most common elements to allow for group experiences, there is certainly the potential to have multiple VR headsets, tablets or other sensor-based options to create unique and compelling experiences. VR remains a darling of custom branded content, so we expect to see more of these experiences in the foreseeable future.
However, like all branded content, the storyline should complement the message of the brand employing the VR technology. Content remains king, and if the story isn’t interesting on paper, it isn’t going to be any more so in virtual form, symmetric or asymmetric.
At the end of the day, it is going to be up to software developers in the VR space to create unique and engaging experiences that further the medium. Therefore, it will also be up to brands for which the medium is appropriate to invest in the virtual narrative and recognize its potential beyond the headset. VR has reached a tipping point, and if all goes well, we can tip it on its virtual head.