As we enter Year 2 of the emergence of Virtual Reality as a consumer platform, we will see many analysts, articles and pundits weigh in on the state of the nascent industry. They will ask things like: Who are the early winners and losers? Is VR already whiffing on the huge expectations set in early 2016? Are we about to enter the trough of disillusionment and can the industry recover from this setback?
I believe that these questions, while fun to ask, read about and debate on Twitter, fundamentally miss the point.
What we are witnessing is the birth of arguably the most important computing platform to date that has the potential to change the way we live, work, learn, entertain and communicate in a way that dwarfs everything that has come before it.
Crazy, you say? Perhaps. But to understand this better, let’s rewind the clock 200,000 years to the emergence of Homo Sapiens as a species distinct from other human ancestors. An increasing number of anthropologists and evolutionary biologists theorize that one trait that differentiated Homo Sapiens from other related species was the ability to cooperate with one another in large, flexible groups outside of their immediate tribe or family, a theory further popularized in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Underlying our ability to flexibly cooperate is our ability to communicate. We did this first through spoken language. Language was followed by art, stories and myths that prompted humans to organize around a set of shared beliefs in complex social systems far beyond any that had preceded them.
When thought of from this perspective, one can look at each evolution in human communication and the technologies that facilitate these advances as major factors propelling our species forward.
The invention of writing enabled communication over distance and time. The emergence of the moveable type printing press in Europe in the mid 1400s fostered the rapid and cost efficient (at the time) dissemination of human thought and works to a much broader audience.
The Gutenberg Printing Press (Wikimedia)
The telegraph and the telephone enabled real time or near real time communication across long distances. Of course, the Internet built on all of these past innovations by providing a globally connected, very low cost speed of light transport mechanism at a scale we never could have imagined.
As impressive and important as all of these advances have been, Virtual Reality has the potential to unlock a new level of fidelity in communication that can be transformative across all fronts.
A brief history of human communication
What makes VR unique?
There are three qualities that make VR different from any communication and computing medium we have experienced previously.
1. Unprecedented immersion. As humans, our perception of the world is inherently spatial across multiple senses (sight, sound and touch). VR is the first digital medium that brings these elements together in a way that convincingly mimics our sense of perception in the physical world. By combining stereo perception with positional tracking and game-engines that can visualize the geometry of the world in any direction that you look — you have fewer and fewer perceptual cues to tell you that it’s “not real.” When we get it wrong, we induce side-effects (nausea, eye and brain fatigue, etc.) but when we get it right, it absolutely brings our perception of reality to a new level.
VR is already the most immersive form of computing and is getting better at a rapid pace. For example, when Oculus released their touch controllers in December, I was amazed by how much more real and complete each experience felt, driven simply by the fact that I could see and articulate my hands within VR.
Surprisingly, seeing one’s hands in VR significantly increases immersion (and fun!).
The result for me and other Oculus owners was a dramatic increase in the fun factor and time spent in VR.
More recently, I had the opportunity to try the Ghostbusters experience at the VOID in Utah.
The VOID is pioneering a location-based VR experience beyond what is possible to have in the home today. Each participant walks around an enclosed, purpose-built stage with a high powered gaming PC strapped to her back. Included in this rig is what’s known as a haptic vest which vibrates in the appropriate places when you get hit by objects thrown by the ghosts you’re trying to subdue. This added tactile dimension increases the level of immersion and realism that’s hard to overemphasize.
As VR continues to mature, our ability to simulate virtual worlds and experiences will first approach and then likely surpass what we experience in the real world.
William: “Are you real?” Angela: “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?” (HBO)
2. The most social computing medium to date. One common critique of VR is that is has the potential to be socially isolating. Critics fear that virtual experiences will be so engaging that the pull of these simulated worlds will be no match for interacting with people in real life (IRL). The addiction many of us have to our Smartphones today will be supplanted by the even stronger pull of having Kleenex box-sized headsets strapped to our faces all day at the expense of real human interaction.
While all new technology has its pros and cons and is best used in moderation, I believe VR offers the potential for a far brighter future. People have always felt a strong pull towards the social aspects of computing from early Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) to Compuserve Bulletin Boards to the rise of Instant Messaging to today’s billion user plus social networks. The lure of social computing has always been the opportunity to connect with other people who may be geographically distant in a shared virtual space.
VR will bring the ability to connect around shared interests, passions and goals in a way that is much more natural and similar to how we interact with each other in the real, physical world. Done right, social in VR will enable us to understand and empathize with others not only by what they say but also how it feels to be where they are and how they live their lives. It has the potential create a new sense of camaraderie that 120 characters can never approach.
Imagine being able to meet with friends and family in any simulated physical location, free from the constraints of time and physics. Want to spice things up a bit? Just bring along your own unique set of special super powers to these virtual get togethers. Kyle Russell does a great job of highlighting some of the early social experimentation that’s already happening in the medium in his excellent post on the topic.
It will take a few years for VR to get to the penetration levels required to make social really work at scale. If you can’t connect with the majority of your friends or work colleagues in VR, the social utility of it is significantly hampered. However, in a relatively short period of time, I think we’ll look back dismissively on all other forms of online social interaction as inherently low bandwidth, much as we wonder today how anyone could have effectively communicated via Telegraph in the 1800s.
3. Freedom to innovate within the format. Unlike any prior medium, the format and constraints of VR are not locked in at its birth. To put this in perspective, at the time of its invention, the movies were defined by a series of rectangular images. Over the last 100+ years there has been a huge amount of innovation in terms of the complexity and sophistication of what those rectangles contain (color, animation and computer generated visual effects are three that immediately come to mind), but the underlying format of the medium hasn’t changed.
VR is inherently different in that the medium is incredibly flexible. A few of the experiential axes on which early VR pioneers are innovating and experimenting include but are not limited to:
* Single vs multi-user
* Interactive vs cinematic
* Room scale vs seated
* Tactile feedback
* The use of sense of smell and environmental stimuli (wind, mist, heat, cold, etc.)
While it is far too early to predict how this will all play out and what the right combination of factors are that will create mind blowing experiences, the pace of innovation and experimentation is impressive.
For example, the difference in the quality and diversity of content shown at the 2017 New Frontier portion of the Sundance Film Festival (which has become a leading showcase for VR content) over what was on display in 2016 was mind blowing. Every aspect of each piece I saw from the level of creativity and storytelling to the technical improvements in production represented a giant leap over what had been on display a mere 12 months prior.
As VR rapidly matures, it is certain to impact a broad base of applications in the same way that Smartphones have touched just about every aspect of our lives from productivity to transportation to how we order and interact with food. However, two application areas that I think will see dramatic transformation are Entertainment and what I’m calling Teleportation.
1. Entertainment. In the entertainment world, I think we will see an acceleration of what has been happening over the course of the last 20 years which is that new devices for consuming content of all kinds including games, movies, TV and new kinds of experiences only possible in VR will increasingly take share of time spent from existing devices and distribution systems.
We’ve seen this kind of thing play out already in music (transition from CDs to digital downloads to streaming) and in television (Netflix’s annual investment in content dwarfs its next closest traditional cable competitor and Amazon isn’t far behind). This same platform shift has been underway in gaming for the past few years (in 2016, Smartphones eclipsed both console and PC games to become the largest segment of the industry). While the movie industry has been resisting this disruption for many years, it is now changing quite rapidly.
VR may very well accelerate this process. It will start in the near future when second and third generation VR headsets are able to deliver a superior movie watching experience from a picture quality, sound and comfort perspective than what is possible in even the newest IMAX or Dolby Cinema theater. And of course we’ll be able to have this experience without ever leaving our homes.
In parallel, we will see the rise of new forms of storytelling that can only be told and delivered in VR. Today, VR experiences either tend to be distinctly game-like or distinctly cinematic in nature. However, in the near term we are likely to start seeing experiences built from the ground up the fuse the best of both worlds to create something entirely new that would never have been possible without VR. A telling sign of this is the fact that just about every VR experience at Sundance 2017 experimented with at least some limited form of interactivity even if it was primarily telling a narrative story.
Montreal-based studio Felix & Paul had a particularly interesting take on this with their VR movie, Miyubi, which tells the story of a family growing up in the 80s the perspective of a toy robot.
A scene from Miyubi (Felix & Paul/Sundance Film Festival)
In addition to being possibly the longest VR film made to date at 40 minutes, the viewer can get access to an un-lockable hidden scene by finding a number of hidden objects while watching the movie.
While it was clear that just about everyone was still in experimentation mode, I would expect to see some exciting breakthroughs here throughout the course of 2017.
As VR matures as a medium for entertainment, we are likely to see a rewriting of today’s power structure in terms of creative opportunities, distribution and economics which is one of the reasons that so many traditional Hollywood creatives are so intrigued by the possibilities, despite the early stage of things.
2. Teleportation. VR is also likely to open up a whole new range of applications based on what I call Teleportation, meaning the ability to virtually be in any location at any point in history with any group of people, alive or dead. The closest version of this capability we’ve seen in popular culture is of course the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Captain Picard and Data explore the roaring 20s (Paramount)
Accomplishing this will of course require significant advances in core VR tech as well as AI but the implications are profound. Teleportation will most likely happen as an iterative process in which we make continued incremental progress towards this experience vs. some single, giant leap.
Some of the use cases that most excite me, though not yet possible, include a conferencing experience where all meeting participants feel like they are actually in the same place or temporal tourism application where viewers can travel to ancient Greece to be tutored by Socrates, watch Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address or “simply” visit the ISS for a day.
In my view, the potential for Teleportation to increase human understanding and compassion across cultures and to increase productivity has more to offer humanity than just about any technological innovation we have seen to date.
How do we get there from here?
While the kind of VR experience I’m describing might seem light years from where we are today, it’s not as far as one may think. Many of the things that are most awkward about today’s version of VR — from the plethora of wires to the relatively low res, narrow field of view, heavy headsets to the lack of mind blowing experiences — will likely improve far faster than anyone thinks. We saw this same phenomenon happen with cell phones and the Internet where the initial user experience and form factors that were prevalent in the beginning bear no resemblance to what we see today.
I vividly remember trying the Internet for the first time in 1994, shortly after the company that became Netscape (then called Mosaic Communications) launched. I was in grad school and everyone was buzzing about the fact that the Mosaic browser had just been installed in the computer lab in the basement (the Internet always started in a basement…). My friends and I rushed down to the lab to check it out.
I opened the browser and had to first figure out how to type in some complex syntax called a “URL” which took me to a mostly text page that described the various protocols that made this whole Internet thing work. From there, I clicked on a link that promised to take me to an image that in the end took over 30 seconds to download in very low res.
All of this was obviously a far cry from how we use the Web today on the continually connected supercomputers that we carry around in our pockets. From that experience in 1994, it would have been almost impossible to see how today the Internet is essential to our daily lives, but the spark and infinite potential was already visible on the horizon, like VR today.
Here are three areas that serve as good signposts for the pace of progress in VR:
1. Continued progress on the core tech. When VR becomes a better, more natural viewing experience than traditional screens are today, it will be pervasive. This is a high bar with a lot of technical challenges but there a few underlying core technologies that will help us progress down this path.
These include GPUs for rendering ever richer virtual environments; Displays which need match the eye’s ability to resolve small details (resolution) and low latency to deliver the kind of viewing experience that everyone wants; Optics which need to get lighter, sharper and deliver a wider field of view in order to create the kind of experiences that everyone will want to see. While these are by no means solved problems, the pace of progress and the amount of R&D investment going into these areas across the industry is very promising. These improvements should be continual and iterative and I expect we will start to see the emergence of the second generation of headsets that incorporate many of these advances in 2018.
The continued rapid increase in GPU performance will bring big gains to VR. (Nvidia)
2. UI and UX Innovation. VR is the first fully 3D/spatial computing medium which means that just about every UI/UX metaphor that works well in the PC and mobile world doesn’t translate. We need to find new ways for communicating with first time VR users how to interact and move in these immersive environments. There is a huge new interaction palate from which to draw including simulated physics and gravity that, over time, should make this user experience very compelling. I expect 2017 to be a year in which we see some big breakthroughs here.
3. VR’s Angry Birds Moment. Angry Birds was a seminal moment in mobile gaming in that it was the first breakout hit designed from the ground up for mobile. Furthermore, many of the elements that made the game so fun, like pulling the birds back in the slingshot in order to launch them, simply wouldn’t have made sense on a different platform like a console or PC. We have definitely not seen this kind of breakout hit in VR either from a gaming or storytelling perspective. However, if you look at the sheer volume and quality of creative teams and individuals attacking this problem, I think it’s only a matter of time until we see the first of this kind of experience in VR.
We are in the earliest of innings in VR. The state of the industry feels very much like the early days of the Web did when I started my career at Netscape in the mid 90s. Every week, there is some new, exciting development. There will be a number of high profile failures and some spectacular successes. We’re at a stage in VR in which every company in the space would rather find ways to work together in order help push the medium forward rather than worry about optimizing their piece of the pie.
At our company, Lytro, we’re focused on a set of tools and technologies to make it easier to bring real people and real environments into the virtual world. We’re at the sweet spot on the innovation curve where on a regular basis, we are making breakthroughs on what seemed like previously intractable problems. The breakthroughs in turn open up new opportunities and with them a whole new set of challenges.
In my conversations with other VR entrepreneurs across the industry, I hear regularly that we are all experiencing this same cycle of innovation. The understanding that this same thing is happening all across the industry from the smallest startups to the biggest tech giants is what makes working in VR so exhilarating and what gives me confidence that we, as an industry, will absolutely realize the promise of the medium.