VR firms companies are using old-school techniques to help everyday consumers get to grips with the complexity of a new technology.
Above me is the Hillary Step, a sheer vertical face of rock about 12 metres high on the south-east ridge of Mount Everest. In a brisk breeze, snow eddies around my boots. I reach out my thickly gloved hand to connect a carabiner to a rope to pull myself up the rock wall.
In reality, of course, I’m not scaling the world’s tallest mountain but strapped to a machine in a stuffy, darkened room in a Los Angeles convention centre. This is Everest VR, a virtual reality experience on HTC’s Vive which, along with Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset, is one of the top-end VR devices available. The Everest app was stitched together from more than 300,000 photographs and while linear in structure, it’s not really a game – more a showcase for the hardware – it is captivating.
At Vive’s ivy-coated offices in San Francisco’s Mission district, there’s a feeling among developers that VR stands on the edge of a boom. Its following among video gamers is already very established. However, it’s still early days for more mainstream consumers who will need to get to grips with the expense and complexity of a new technology if they want to give it a try.
Outside of early-adopting technology fans, consumers are notoriously conventional. VR requires them to strap on an unflattering headset and headphones, risk nausea and disorientation and face the more subtle discomfort of having to learn how to navigate a new space, where even selecting the next option on a menu is a new experience. Watching someone else using VR is also an unappealing advert for it.
So faced with all this, how will VR companies try and inspire mainstream consumers to have a try?
One answer, they think, will be by reviving the traditional video game arcade. At Vive, the head of their app store division says that slice of the market alone could be worth as much as $100m (£79m) in the next two years.
Return of the video arcade
“From the largest amusement centers to arcade installations at family entertainment locations, virtual reality is clearly becoming the next big draw for entertainment,” said Rikard Steiber, the president of Viveport. “We believe this will be a cornerstone in democratizing access to high-end virtual reality and turning curious consumers into longtime fans.”
This is already a trend in China, according to Vive spokesman, Meelad Sadat, who said some chains already have thousands of branches open. Viveport Arcade wants to connect developers with arcade owners.
Sadat said: “If you’re a small indie developer it’s hard to reach out to thousands of arcade operators around the world, but also if you are an arcade operator in China it’s hard for you to keep up with hundreds of new developers all the time.” He added that the potential market size is huge if you look back to golden era of arcades.
“In 1990 Pac-Man ... made $3.5bn (£2.7bn) in revenue,” he said. “That’s just one game.”
Running demonstrations in public arcades neatly bypasses one of the more complex rituals of investing in a VR kit: setting it up in your own home. HTC’s Vive, regarded as the highest-quality device, comes with movement sensors that require configuration similar to a high-end home audio set up. For the moment, it also requires an expensive, powerful computer to run.
But perhaps the real incentive will be in the VR games and films themselves. Jenna Seiden, the head of content acquisition for Vive, said that far from being just games, the future of VR from a content standpoint was limitless.
“We don’t know what are going to be the breakout formats, but right now we are at a very nascent stage where anything goes,” she said. She showed me some early versions of business apps by General Electric and Ikea, and the virtual meeting space AltSpace, which is already being used for everything from virtual standup comedy gigs to debate watch-parties.
Artists ‘can build worlds to be intensely emotive in’
For artists though, VR is an entirely new medium with few established conventions. It’s ripe for exploration. Allumette is an exquisite animated film set in a town of floating platforms in the clouds, while Reframe Iran offers cinematic, interactive storytelling about the work of Iranian artists, and can be viewed on entry-level VR equipment such as Google’s Cardboard.
“By seeing their work – when you put on the VR headset you were in the interviewer’s spot – it’s like you’re having a conversation with the artist,” said Reframe Iran’s director Alexandra Glorioso. “That was really powerful because Iran is so misunderstood by Americans. That’s another use to virtual reality, to introduce people to different cultures, times, events, by really transporting them there.”
For Glorioso, VR really lends itself to journalism. “If you bring [a virtual reality camera] to a rally or a protest it can show the audience what’s really going on,” she said.
The Guardian recently built its own VR project, called 6x9, which allowed people to experience the tangible and horrifying reality of solitary confinement.
Karrie Fransman, a London-based graphic novelist and artist, tried Google’s Tilt Brush, which allows artists to paint in three dimensions. “The first time I tried Tilt Brush it felt like I was painting with my left foot,” she said. “But after four hours I’d gotten the hang of it. It’s a bit like magic.”
Fransman said the possibilities VR offers to artists are endless. “It gives us the opportunity to build worlds that are intensely emotive to be in. You remember them as places you’ve been rather than things you’ve seen.”
As a comic book artist and someone interested in visual storytelling, Fransman said VR offers an opportunity to draw stories across a visible space so the reader can walk between scenes. “It’s amazing to be involved with VR at this stage,” she said. “You’re at the forefront of an emerging medium, like in the early days of cinema.”
Fransman does not have her own VR setup yet and used Tilt Brush at Virtually Reality, a space for startups and consumers to use ready-made VR kits in Camden, London. “I got frustrated that there wasn’t anywhere I can go and play with the stuff I was seeing on Kickstarter, and that not many people knew about these emerging platforms,” said Virtually Reality founder Alexander Cohen. He hopes to franchise Virtually Reality across the world and wants to have 100 locations by 2020.
Encouraging developers to build
His approach involves VR setups in a public space, like old-school 80s arcades, is the same one envisioned by HTC. They announced in November that they were expanding Viveport – their online marketplace for games and applications, based on the merger between HTC and online game distributor Steam – to encompass an Arcade program.
Yet for developers, building for VR requires serious resources. HTC recognises that its users will expect high-quality content, and is trying to address this by setting up ViveX, a $100m accelerator. ViveX will have two offices in China, one in Taiwan and one in San Francisco. The aim is to connect independent developers of everything from games to business-to-business applications with HTC’s hardware, office space, funding and development expertise.
One of ViveX’s companies is Oben, which builds 3D human avatars for VR immersive experiences. “As a young company, it’s very difficult to get access to the right people,” said Nikhil Jain, Oben’s CEO and co-founder. “We get to talk to our peers, experiment, test stuff out in a safe way, and come up with ideas to help each other out.”
For Steiber, once people try VR the experience is irresistibly compelling. “The technology is so good that when you immerse yourself, your visual system, auditory system, and your motor system – your hands – and you can move around in a 3D space, your brain actually thinks you’re on Mount Everest.”
“I have two young girls – six and 11,” Steiber added. “They can now go underwater, meet a whale, go to the top of Everest, go to Mars. These experiences that were only available to the few are now available to everyone.”