The virtual reality industry is teetering on the brink of expansion to mainstream audiences. VR is making its mark on a variety of industries including entertainment with box office record breakers like 2017’s “It”, healthcare with applied pediatric medical training and advertising with AT&T’s use of a virtual car crash simulation to convey the dangers of texting and driving. VR’s applications are highly versatile and nothing short of revolutionary. However, we’ve reached a fork in the road when it comes to total mainstream adoption — a bit of a complex “chicken or the egg” question of which needs to come first — the content or the hardware?
Despite all of the current successful practical applications, VR has yet to become a staple in homes around the world, and statistics point to both hardware and content as the source for hesitation. Consumers have reported the need for additional software, apps and hardware as being the greatest barrier for preventing them fully embracing VR. Companies like Google and Samsung have now turned their focus to creating content more than perfecting the current limitations of hardware such as accessibility, price, image quality and adaptability. Although there are arguments for both sides, it is my belief that captivating content is the key to accelerating VR’s expansion into mainstream culture and audiences.
The early days of a medium
As an entertainment content creator, producer and distributor for over 20 years now, I’ve seen the rise of a number of new entertainment platforms and technologies — DVD, Blu-Ray, IMAX and 3D cinema — the explosion of the game industry and the dawn of the internet and it’s impact on how we value intellectual property. iTunes, Youtube and Netflix have revolutionized the way we consume content and streaming technology has created a seismic shift in the economic model of the entertainment industry.
With the rise of virtual reality technology, I think we are experiencing an almost unprecedented opportunity, one that we haven’t seen since the first cinemas began appearing in cities around the world at the turn of the 20th century. The parallels between the rise of cinema and what we are seeing today with virtual and augmented reality are striking. As in the early days of cinema, the creation of innovative immersive content will drive the new VR platform into the mainstream.
Like many virtual reality experiences, the films shown in those first cinemas were mostly a novelty item: single-shot scenes of horse carriages moving down a street, a train steaming into a station bustling with passengers and workers pouring out of factories at the end of a shift. It’s the same in VR today with the first simple and wonderful experiences we’ve seen over the past few years. Like those first primitive movie scenes, the VR content we are experiencing today is overwhelmingly due to the revolutionary visual nature of the new platform rather than our connection with the content itself. However, back in the first days of the movie business, once the novelty of those first films wore off, cinema had to quickly evolve as audiences craved more from the medium. I believe that is where we are today with virtual reality. We’ve spent the last few years wowing everybody with the technology, but now it’s time to deliver the content.
A creative opportunity
And here is where I see the huge opportunity, and the most striking similarity to the first days of cinema. Who could have imagined that, after those first movie houses opened in the late 1800’s, only a few decades later the motion picture industry would be a massive worldwide cultural and economic force, one that still dominates our lives today. I believe that’s the current potential of VR, with one big difference: the movie houses for VR are already built. Corporate giants such as Google, Sony, HTC and Oculus/Facebook have invested billions in developing and marketing headset technology over the past few years. It is now a big opportunity for content creators.
Predictions show that VR revenues are set to hit $7.7 billion in 2017, reaching $75 billion by 2021, yet in order to hit those numbers, there will need to be a big investment in content creation. With the advanced headset technology out in the market, the need for innovative and compelling VR content is massive, and crucial to the VR hardware manufacturers to see a return on their investment. I believe great content is everything. The proof was shown in the first days of YouTube, where people watched massive amounts of content with very poor visual quality due to the early days of internet streaming — but they still watched.
Progressions in hardware are crucial as well, and the next year looks to be full of them. However, none of that will matter unless there’s great VR content. Companies have already invested billions in this hardware technology and more updates will come – but not before mainstream audience interest is proven. As in the early days of the film industry, it’s always been about the content, and always will be. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors.
John Hamilton is co-founder and CEO of UNLTD.