Virtual reality is being hailed as the Next Big Thing, the newest tech trend that will upend all our lives and make a handful of Silicon Valley wunderkinds very, very rich (already happening as we speak). If you’re old enough to remember past high profile failures in VR like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy or the insanely clunky Dactyl Nightmare, you’d be right to have some doubts about VR’s ability to transform the world.
Despite what cynics might say, however, the tech is here today for virtual reality to start impacting our lives on a meaningful scale. It feels like we’re finally hitting a point where virtual reality technology can deliver the immersive, futuristic experiences we’ve been promised for years. But it’s not the tech that could stop VR from truly becoming the Next Big Thing.
Right now, there are essentially two main camps of development for virtual reality: gaming and video. Others exist (in fact, my company Rukkus is integrating immersive VR into e-commerce), but most of the conversation is centered around these two camps. VR for gaming is significantly more advanced in terms of hardware and software, but most people believe that if VR is truly going to hit the mainstream, it needs to move into the video space. We’re already starting to see that with things like Facebook 360 Videos, the Google Cultural Institute, and more out-there experiments like comedy shows broadcast in VR. It’s all exciting to see, but the results, well, they’re not quite living up to the potential just yet.
Right now, VR video lacks a coherent visual language, and that’s a big problem. By that, I don’t mean a spoken language like English, or even a programming language like HTML. I mean a vocabulary of cuts, camera angles, editing techniques, and the like that tell a story visually. Let Martin Scorsese and George Lucas explain it if you’re confused. Most viewers never consciously think about this type of language, but it’s immediately obvious when you’re watching the work of someone who can’t speak it. It’s why we love to tear apart bad movies like The Room.
And this lack of a language is what’s hurting VR from being something more than a novelty right now. Watch enough of Facebook 360 videos, for example, and you start to notice that despite offering viewers full 360 degree video, VR content still really only wants you to focus on one thing at a time. Transitions between scenes are also extremely awkward, because they break your sense of immersion, which is the whole selling point of virtual reality in the first place. VR is still using the visual language of film to tell stories, and that creates a real sense of friction. The good news is that finding things that work takes time.
When motion pictures first arrived in the 1890s, their subjects were simple: men boxing, a man sneezing, a couple kissing. Most of these short films were recorded in Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, and it’s obvious that the people making them knew they had something special on their hands, even if they weren’t exactly sure what it was. It’s simple to us today, but 120 years ago, it was an entirely new way of looking at the world.
Virtual reality is still in that Edison Labs phase. We’re still trying to figure out exactly how we can tell stories or display information in a fully immersive view. And despite the fact that a lot of VR platforms seem to think of video games as just the first step into the technology, games might be the best place to look for how other types of VR storytelling can work properly.
Oculus Rift, the most high profile consumer VR device on its way to the market, started explicitly as a gaming peripheral. Palmer Luckey, Oculus VR founder and one of those rich wunderkinds I mentioned earlier, designed his first prototype as a way to build a more immersive experience for first-person shooter games. Just about everyone else, though, saw the potential for something more far-reaching. After all, Facebook didn’t spend $2 billion just to make video games.
“Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote when he announced Oculus’ acquisition. “This is really a new communication platform.”
Those courtside seats Zuckerberg mentioned? The Golden State Warriors have already introduced them to customers. The experience reportedly falls a little flat, but then again, if broad consumer VR had worked out all the kinks by now, I wouldn’t be writing this. In the broad future of VR, courtside seats are going be very easy to master down the line. But if Facebook wants to monopolize more complex entertainment, it might have to turn back to video games for inspiration.
In fact, that problem of language is one many game developers are already thinking about heavily.
“At Telltale, we operate in what we refer to as the language of cinema,” Job Stauffer, Head of Creative Communications for Telltale Games, told Ars Technica. “If you look at VR and the language of presence, it’s another totally different language. So for us to translate everything we do from the cinematic language to the language of presence, it’s a whole new ball game.”
If VR video does take a stronger cue from video games, the idea of a “language of presence” is a pretty good place to start. Video games, especially those with 360-degree first-person view, are already excellent at drawing users’ attention to the most important things happening in the virtual world around them. Games use a variety of tricks, from level design to sound cues, to make players feel like it’s their choice to focus on the things developers want them to notice. Filmmakers looking to capitalize on the benefits of virtual reality would do well to look at video game interfaces and work to apply those interfaces to a more passive model.
Ultimately, it’s hard to say exactly what’s going to define the language of virtual reality. It’ll be worked out through trial and error over the next few years, and just about everyone involved in the virtual reality space right now will have some kind of impact on the form it finally takes. That should be exciting for developers and consumers alike. If you’re paying attention to virtual reality in 2016, you’re literally watching a new art form come together. I, for one, can’t wait to see where it goes.
Manick Bhan is a former Goldman Sachs investment banker turned startup founder. He launched Rukkus in 2013 and currently serves as CEO and CTO of the New York City-based company.