With humanity's horizons suddenly circumscribed, VR presents an opportunity for escapism CREDIT: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
After years of failing to live up to the hype, coronavirus-induced lockdowns could see the 'reality' firmly put into VR.
It was the silver lining for a technology long clouded by commercial failure. After years of hype and hope, Virtual Reality had finally found its niche: entertainment “experiences”.
The headsets and haptic-feedback suits which once promised to create alternative digital worlds where some would even choose to reside full-time, were instead deployed in shopping centres, offering new extensions to old franchises like Star Wars or The Avengers.
Far from the lofty dreams of the technology's greatest evangelists, such “location-based” VR was more theme-park-ride than Matrix-style parallel existence.
Now, however, Covid-19 seems to have snuffed out even this reduced ambition. From the US to the Middle East, quarantine measures have forced VR start-ups like The Void, Sandbox VR, and Two Bit Circus to close sites where customers strapped on head-mounted displays (HMDs) and toted virtual weapons to “travel into your favorite film, be your favorite character, and experience the impossible.” All for £33 ($40).
But that was then. Virtual Reality is not, it turns out, Virus Resistant, which may hit plans by The Void, backed by Disney, to roll out eight new locations in Europe, including two in London (at the Westfield shopping centres to the west and east of the city).
Such companies are not the only VR storytellers to have been hit by Covid-19. A consortium of British creative talent, from Aardman animations to the Royal Shakespeare Company, have been granted millions in public funding from UK Research and Innovation to explore immersive storytelling.
One fruit of the initiative, a “mixed reality” Wallace and Gromit adventure called “The Big Fix Up”, remains scheduled for this autumn, with audiences promised they will be able “to experience and interact with the story as it unfolds over time”.
Wallace and Gromit are set to make their VR debuts later this year CREDIT: Alamy
UKRI and its creative talent were at this very moment meant to be showcasing the VR project, known as “Audience of the Future”, and incorporating the latest VR hardware from key manufacturers such as Magic Leap, HTC and Oculus, at the key industry SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. But now SXSW has been cancelled and they are home.
Other conferences, however, see in VR the potential to carry on as virtually normal.
On Thursday morning, at 1:30am UK time (9:30am in Beijing), HTC’s own conference, for developers, is being held in VR. According to Vive’s China President Alvin Graylin, it promises “1000+ others from 55+ countries for a full day of thoughtful content & 1:1 interactions.”
He is at pains to make clear that during coronavirus lockdowns, the serendipitous networking that is typical of such conferences, is only possible through VR.
AltspaceVR, acquired in 2017 by Microsoft, also recently hosted an education conference and, according to Principal Product Manager Katie Kelly, is having to recruit to keep up with extra demand.
It is a rare glimmer for a technology which has, for more than 60 years, promised more than it delivered.
It was 1957 when cinematographer Morton Heilig developed a cinema cabinet that, through its stereo speakers and 3D display, fans, scent and air effects, aimed to plunge audiences into the thick of the action by stimulating several, rather than just one, of their senses.
Heilig called it the Sensorama, and it presaged decades of development in which VR was routinely proclaimed as the next big thing in every sector from gaming to the military.
General Electric produced the first computerised “Flight simulator” in 1972; seven years later McDonnel-Douglas produced the VITAL helmet, which allowed pilots to train using computer graphics. As McDonnel-Douglas put it in their newspaper advertisements of the time: “The Runway isn’t real, the experience is.”
But for some dreamers such conferences, training, and gaming only exploit a fraction of VR's potential. They hope for the rebirth of its greatest ambition: to be an escape not an experience; lasting not fleeting; an alternative world, not an entertainment in this one.
Ironically, it is Hollywood which has recently kept that VR flame alive. Stephen Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) portrayed an Earth where existence has been rendered bleak by some unspoken catastrophe, where people escape online via OASIS – the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. Exercise, education, relationships – OASIS offered virtual equivalents for almost everything.
Ready Player One sees movie maestro Steven Spielberg dabble in the world of VR CREDIT: Jaap Buitendijk
Some 15 years previously, however, a similar concept had already found astonishing popularity – for real. Second Life, the online world launched in 2003, hosted everything from shops to universities, and at one point had a thriving “property” market for its “residents”.
If interest in Second Life represented the first virtual bubble of this century, a second came with the purchase in 2014 of Oculus by Facebook for $2bn. Over the next couple of years, venture capital investment in VR exploded from under £170m ($200m) to more than £725m ($850m).
But in the years since, funding has fallen away again, notably in favour of so-called “augmented reality” (AR) which overlays information on top of our world, via glasses, rather than immersing users in a digital world, via a wrap-around helmet. By 2018, VR funding was back down to around £200m, barely above what it had been four years earlier.
The last 12 months, then, have represented a rare period when expectations for VR, instead of being overblown, have actually been low.
Under the radar
Yet in that time, a raft of new, cheaper, better performing headsets have been released. Chief among them is the Oculus Quest, which won good reviews and sold out when launched last May. HTC, a major rival to Oculus, is preparing to launch a new headset called Cosmos Play.
It remains to be seen if Facebook emulates HTC by replacing its own cancelled developer conference, F8, scheduled for early May, with VR. So far it promises only “online elements”.
Whether or not it does, it is Facebook, above all, which this year is promising to harness the power of VR. For it is this year that it plans to launch Horizon: “an ever-expanding VR world where you can explore, play, and create in extraordinary ways”.
As Second Life had residents, cartoonish Horizon has Citizens. There are already rules about “establishing our culture” (it will be friendly, inclusive, and curious, … open to new adventures and take advantage of the limitless possibilities of this world”.)
VR has always had its fans. But through a combination of technological limitations and social habit, it has always remained niche. Yet it has never gone away, its devotees always insistent that this year will be the year it goes viral. In 2020, they really mean it.
“It’s very possible that [quarantine and lockdown] may be the behavior change that will prompt people to put on their VR headsets rather than venturing out to the physical world,” notes Rizwan Virk, a venture capitalist and author of The Simulation Hypothesis.
“The virtual world may end up being the best way to interact, especially with idealized versions of ourselves as our avatars. And that was the promise of VR all along: that it’ll be more fun (and much safer) to use VR for everything from going to school, attending a conference, and perhaps even virtual relationships!”