Catherine Allen is an immersive media specialist, having led the production of two of the BBC’s first VR experiences and contributed on VR to WIRED. I wanted to ask her what the future holds for VR, and to find out, we all be living in virtual spaces in the future?
Imagine: flying through space. Or viewing the Tigers-Wasps match from a perspective of a player, and feeling adrenaline as you break past their line, to sprint, and finally jump dive forward to score a try.... Imagine you are not on your horrendous central line morning commute at all, rather, you are in a Japanese zen garden, complete with the sounds of running water, pretty visuals including green spaces and orchids, and the faint fluttering of butterflies… right up until you remove your headset at Liverpool Street Station. Virtual reality has an easily understood appeal.
But, unfortunately, niche usage? So far. The technology is immature, and takes a high degree of investment to get right. At least, this is what commentators say to each other. Besides, it is expensive, and will become cheaper. The rational thing is for the anticipated mass user base to wait for the costs to come down. Yes, investors agree hopefully. People will lap this stuff up. Right?
This is the main question I wanted to ask Catherine Allen: will they? To what extent? The clear and obvious VR application is gaming, for which it is already used. Seizing a portion of this marketplace could be considered a success for the technology. It is a huge, and lucrative, market, after all.
It is also a market which is mostly owned by smartphones offering low-fi games like Angry Birds. VR tends to be high-tech, high-end, high-cost, high-performance. It is the kind of technology that some people look at and say, “I absolutely must have this”; and which more people will look at, and say, “that’s very impressive” – and then return to their smartphones.
For an enthusiast, Allen is similarly hesitant:
‘I think we’ve got to see some really strong use-cases for VR, for it to go mainstream. Reasons that you would want to buy it for your house – and it’s not just about cost. It costs a lot at the moment, but it’s about answering: ”should it use up space in my house? Should it use up time? What’s the slot in my day that it fits into?”’
‘I think it’s going to take much longer than these analysts’ predictions and even investors’ predictions for VR to become a standard home entertainment device. Because right now it doesn’t have a context for its audience. It doesn’t have a place and a time to do it in. The only one, really, is gaming.’
"... my colleague bought me a Google Cardboard for my birthday. It was really eye opening."
The big challenge is about establishing a blueprint for how VR will be used, says Allen. ‘I call it the pocket of time; what’s the pocket of time it fits into? Is VR going to be something that you do on a Sunday afternoon: to go into the study and geek out with a VR experience? Is it something that you do on a Friday evening: invite friends round, and have a beer, and that you all do together? Or is it something you do in the morning before work – a meditation style experience?’
‘The place I see it going mainstream is location-based VR, in venues. So it’ll be an attraction for 5-10 years, and that’ll be its main case, in entertainment, or even in education; something that you do in an institution or a theatre or a museum, or with colleagues, for training at work places. It won’t be something you have at home unless you’re interested.’
Also, ‘for companies for training there’s a really clear business case there, because you can make a one-time investment and then scale training.’
At any rate, even besides cost factors, there are other reasons Allen finds communal, social, contexts more convincing for use-cases. ‘VR is a weird thing to do. You strap a screen to your face and lose a sense of all visuals of what’s going on around you. Because of this, you may need a safe space to get used to it. A space where we’re comfortable doing weird things. Where do we do weird things? In the arts, the theatre, even yoga… people prefer to do yoga together, with somebody leading the session. That makes that weird thing much more normal.’
I suggest that the market can mutate in unpredictable ways, and Allen agrees. The technology and content companies who are most successful tend to ship the products and then iterate on them based on feedback. ‘I think what’ll be really good is if we can get strong feedback loops between mainstream public and VR creators. Consumers will actually be able to say what’s useful and which pocket of time it would sit in. Creating VR products in a vacuum is missing a trick.’
What about a specific product? There have been attempts at this. I ask Allen about Google Cardboard. Cardboard, which retails at around $11 in the US, is the cheapest of a series of low-end VR products released by Google. That is, it is not a piece of technology at all; rather, it is a cardboard cradle which resembles VR, into which you can slide your smartphone as the screen. It’s almost a low-fi VR headset. The user will download VR applications on their phone for a fraction of the cost. Immersion on a budget.
She laughs. ‘Cardboard was my way into VR! At the company I used to work for, my colleague bought me a Google Cardboard for my birthday. It was really eye opening. I know you get these snobs – VR snobs – who are really into it, and when they go back and do cardboard it feels very low-fi and underwhelming. But I suppose you’ve got to put yourself in the position of somebody who’s never done VR before – it’s really good for that audience. I’m not sure that it’ll last decades and decades, but it’s a savvy move for Google to be investing in this space.’
‘I’m a real fan of the Daydream headset,’ she adds. The Google Daydream is a similar product, but built with better materials than Cardboard. ‘The mantra I suppose is “VR for everybody” and the mantra of the headset is exactly that – it feels soft, it looks great, you don’t feel like such a wally when you’re wearing it. Even down to the material they chose – yoga pants-inspired material.’
"My hope is that the large corporates, as they enter the VR market in the coming years, will see the grassroots VR talent and want to foster it and work with these people who are doing such exciting things already."
The thing that interests me about it is the capacity for an interactive experience. This is why I like the idea of growing something out of the smartphone market. VR will live or die on the available content – nobody would use Spotify if there were no such thing as music. Therefore, I want as many people creating content as possible.
2017, I argue, is the age of interaction. Books become tweets, films become YouTube videos; and one of the hopes I have for VR is that there will be enough building tools that the content itself, such as VR environments, can be built by a wider range of people than just directors and architects. They can be built by you and me.
Allen is optimistic that the technology has that scope: it’s about how the chips fall. ‘It’s all to play for. There is a growing underground punk culture of people creating work, getting stuck in, realising that using game engines is not something out of reach. You can download it, you can play it, you can teach yourself. Even interaction design is something that you could spend every weekend getting to grips with and then you could release something.’
‘In the same way that the app store was built on bedroom and garage developers, creating really imaginative work, VR has that punk culture now too. My hope is that the large corporates, as they enter the VR market in the coming years, will see the grassroots VR talent and want to foster it and work with these people who are doing such exciting things already. ’
On that note, I ask Allen about the most exciting thing she’s seen recently. She says she likes ‘VR art, theatre, dance, fine art, sculpture… when you draw on that pool of talent, you often see some very, very original and unique things come out.’
‘More specifically, ‘I’m very into Jane Gauntlet’s work right now – she recently directed a project called, “Intimacy” which is vignettes of couples having conversations with each other. It’s really simple, and beautifully written. You do it at the same time as somebody else on, a sofa. One of them embodies one of the people in the couple and the other embodies the other, so when you take the headset off, you’ve both had a different experience, in parallel. One person has experienced the male perspective and the other has experienced the female perspective.’
This is exactly it: the kind of conversation that makes me believe there is a mass demand for VR. The scope for a broad range of content, of different artists’ work, which I can sit and say that I’m getting into Game of Thrones, or that I’m getting into The Arctic Monkeys to my friend who can, in turn, recommend their preferred content. VR has the capacity to support a range of content, a range of designs, a range of tastes – from the fun, to the relaxing, even to the sublime. Zen gardens, intimate vignettes, rapid driving games. Some people think VR could be big. Some people haven’t seen what it can do.
Image by Jim Johnston