Is VR the Drug of the Future?
SXSW 2017 — The Director’s Cut.
Words by Miles Murphy
I recently had the good fortune of being sent to SXSW by Taxi, tasked with finding out what’s going on at the frontier of filmmaking technology, and to see where the industry trends are heading.
That seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, that’s what I thought too… until I realised there were over 2800 talks, exhibitions and performances in only 11 days. An event so large that if it were staged over six months I doubt I would have seen everything.
Setting aside the enormity of what the event had to offer, I meticulously scrolled through the entire interactive and film schedules on the SXSW app selecting my favourites so I could devise the perfect plan. One thing you learn pretty quickly is that whatever you plan at SXSW, it’s definitely going to change. The queues are sometimes so long you have to wait for over an hour and still might not get in. But that’s okay, sometimes the rest is exactly what you need.
As a filmmaker, I am always fascinated by any new technology that allows us to communicate in unique and interesting ways. Although I had a few different areas of interest, I was determined to get to the bottom of this VR business. Let’s just park the augmented and mixed reality conversations for now, as I doubt you’ve got all day to read this.
Let’s crack into it then.
Is VR the drug of the future? If so when is it coming, and what form will it take?
It’s kinda like a drug right? Escapism tailored to your imagination. Or maybe we are witnessing the beginning of the end. Science fiction films have warned us of societies lost to virtual worlds with artificial intelligence using our life force as their energy source. I know, I just referenced the Matrix. Depending on how good this stuff becomes, and with the recent growth of AI, it could well be something worth thinking about.
Whatever your paranoia level is, a form of VR will be in the mainstream whether you like it or not. It’s just a matter of when and how. VR has been the talk of the town since Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014. But how far has it really developed during that time? I went to a VR conference in Auckland just under a year ago, so I very was curious to see what advancements I would discover at SXSW.
The first thing I encountered was that there is plenty of hype. Millions of dollars have been poured into this industry so naturally, marketers with shiny object syndrome have jumped on it with vigour. They are selling VR like a kid selling ecstasy at a rave. But let’s face it, SXSW is just one giant party full of tech junkies, so it’s not a very hard sell.
But what about interaction with the general public? There seem to have been some small steps taken with the introduction of 360 videos on Facebook, YouTube and more recently Vimeo. And VR headsets can be seen everywhere. We definitely see them in advertising as props, prizes or as products for purchase. But who’s really buying? I personally don’t know a single person outside the industry that owns a VR headset.
It’s easy to see the potential of VR. Escape to a new world, be transported anywhere you like without leaving the comfort of your living room. Seemingly do things you could only imagine in real life. But why are we not seeing any real traction in the market?
What does history tell us?
Although it has only really been the last three years that VR has even been on the radar for the average consumer, the technology has been around for more than 20 years.
It is not uncommon for new technology to take time to find a market. Digital cameras took years to reach the consumer market after first promising to explode. Much like VR, this could be attributed to the relentless pace of technological improvement rendering products obsolete within a year.
However, VR is more than just tech. It’s an experience. The products are in stores now for consumers to go out and make their own content. But until they learn the language of VR it’s just not going to happen.
I remember watching Jaws 3D as a kid, mesmerised and traumatised by the giant shark leaping from the screen snapping its jaws seemingly right in front of my face. But most of the time the 3D was actually annoying. It could be said that the failure of 3D, in that case, came down to the fact that they failed to tailor the storytelling to this new medium.
This is not surprising, as every new technology is often a prisoner to its predecessor. Books to radio, radio to TV, TV to computer, computer to mobile and now mobile to VR. The first TV ads were simply radio ads with a single image slapped on the TV screen. Even today you will find a TV commercial dropped into your Facebook feed with no regard to how people consume content. It’s the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.
It took another 27 years for 3D films to make any real impact, and that was with the 2010 film Avatar. James Cameron seems to understand that for this immersive world to work properly, you have to take the audience somewhere new. You must shape the story to fit the platform and not the other way around.
Since Avatar, 3D movie revenue is on the decline even though the production is on the increase. It could be argued this is because most (but not all) 3D movies fall into the same category as Jaws 3D. Sure the post process is incredible, but most movies are simply 2D movies made 3D.
3D TV is pretty much dead with Sony and LG having pulled the plug on their product support. But that’s not really a huge surprise and the two guys that actually went out and bought a 3D TV will get over it eventually.
This begs the question, will VR follow the same fate? Somehow I doubt it. VR is a dramatic shift from traditional viewing. It’s a completely different experience altogether. When we finally learn to speak the language of VR I think we will see some spectacular results.
We are getting closer.
As far as experiences go there were some pretty interesting things happening at SXSW. There was a powerful Facebook experience that put you in the shoes of a young child going through the trauma of human trafficking. It didn’t have a strong narrative as such, but it was a very chilling and affecting experience.
There was also an incredible VR installation called ‘Life of Us’ from Chris Milk’s company Within. Life of Us takes you on a journey through time where you begin as a single cell organism and evolve until you are a post-human robot. Although this was animation, it was a shared experience with either two or four people emerging into this world with the ability to communicate with each other. VR has long been criticised as an isolating experience. So this is definitely a step in the right direction.
Another experience I had was a VR booth that introduced temperature, wind and smell to the experience. In this experience, I was taken through a forest fire. Interestingly the sensation of smell, heat and sight was enough to make me feel like I couldn’t breathe. The designers of this technology suggest it is extremely effective in the areas of dealing with trauma. They have a simulation designed by the army to place soldiers on the battlefield to relive the experience. The applications are pretty far reaching. I imagine this type of immersion would great for treating people with phobias like social anxiety, developmental disorders, mental trauma etc.
A piece of technology like this also lends itself to education. The army isn’t just using VR for trauma, they are also using it to educate. This application could work in areas where on-sight training is required.
But even if someone comes up with the perfect VR experience, how will this translate to mainstream consumerism? How do we get this product to the masses?
Could social drive VR?
One of the biggest hurdles any new technology will face is convincing the public to invest the time to learn something new. Time is precious in a world where we are bombarded daily with new gadgets, software and whatever else marketers are selling us as the next big thing. We have become numb to the idea that something new and shiny will change our lives forever. We need to have a good reason to invest in something new.
If you are familiar with Simon Sinek’s work it will make sense for marketers to start with the why.
Imagine spending Christmas with the family and interacting with them in real time even though they’re on the other side of the world. That seems like a pretty good reason why you should learn to navigate a VR headset. After all, some of the most memorable experiences in our lives are shared experiences.
I would suggest that the main reason we adopted the widespread use of smartphones, was to have the ability to interact with our family and friends on social media no matter where we are. Perhaps when VR becomes social, consumers will embrace this new technology.
At SXSW I saw two live streaming headsets. The first was in the exhibition hall. It had a 5 second lag time, which was obviously no good for live interaction. Also being able to see yourself but 5 seconds behind was really weird. Unsurprisingly the adult entertainment industry had mastered the technology with real-time live streaming where you could talk to a (clothed) young woman in a room off-site. So the technology is already here for social interaction.
How close is it really?
Having seen big strides in the way VR content is being produced over the past 12 months I think it’s closer than people realise. However, when it does arrive I believe it will stand alone as it’s own entity. I can’t see it ever replacing cinema or TV as many have suggested. VR’s interactive nature lends itself towards experiences more than it does crafted storytelling. As Ang Lee put it “My virtual reality is better than your virtual reality”. There will always be a market for people who prefer to sit back and be taken on a crafted journey created by a clever storyteller. That doesn’t mean we won’t see meaningful stories in VR, but they will be different beasts altogether.
So, back to the question of how long will it take before VR hits mainstream consumerism. Perhaps it will be social that drives it, or maybe someone will create the VR consumable equivalent of Avatar? Interestingly, these are the questions no one felt comfortable answering this year at SXSW. All the exhibitors, manufacturers and industry leaders like Google and Facebook I spoke to would reluctantly offer up a timeframe of about 5–7 years. One of the world’s leading marketing experts, Gary Vaynerchuk, believes it to be much further away. He suggested something more like double that timeframe.
There is one thing I am certain about. When VR really kicks off, it’s going to move very quickly. The social side of tech is already here, so my pick is it will be sooner than most people think.
Miles Murphy is a leading performance and comedy director. At the heart of it, Miles is a story-teller with bucket-loads of visual creativity and strong performance direction skills.
Miles’ work ranges from perfectly timed comedy performance to nuanced stories with heart. His diverse experience in all areas of film, from the grunt work to the technical, allows his work to be well focused and direct. While his deep technical knowledge creates an uncluttered experience for all involved across all aspects of the filmmaking process from start to finish.