Virtual reality has a real problem. Specifically, it has a PR problem (yes, I know — VR has a PR problem). Pick a random individual off of the street and ask for her opinion of VR and you’re likely to receive one of a few typical responses: “Reality is real enough for me” or, “I’m not really much of a gamer” or, “You’ll never find me sitting on the couch watching TV with a headset on.” Don’t get me wrong — I can totally relate. Until maybe two years ago I was a huge skeptic of VR technology myself, and I shared those doubts, the latter in particular. It wasn’t until after I was introduced to the true “reality” of VR technology that my opinion changed in a very drastic way.
A common technological point-in-time comparison that’s frequently invoked by VR skeptics is the spectacular failure of the 3D TV — when 3D TVs first began to show up at CES and finally arrive on the market people even made the same “You’ll never catch me with a pair of 3D glasses (here, headset) on” argument, myself included. This contention, however, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between the 3D TV and VR.
The best way I’ve heard the failure of the 3D TV described is that it was a “solution for a problem that didn’t exist” (hat-tip to Rob Newton of River City VR). When the 3D TV came to the market, hardly anyone was thinking to his or herself how much better life could be if only Dwight from The Office looked just a little bit more reach-out-and-touchable. In truth, the 3D TV was little more than a novel new way of passively consuming entertainment.
What went wrong
At the heart of virtual reality’s PR problem lies the misconception that VR is no different — a more immersive way to mindlessly entertain ourselves. That’s entirely understandable; in truth, most of the widespread marketing and media attention paid to VR has focused on video games and more recently 360 video. And as much as I love gaming and entertainment — and in VR even more — I believe this focus has been at least partly responsible for the technology’s lackluster adoption rates in 2016 and 2017 commonly referred to as its “trough of disillusionment”.
In our failure to paint a more broadly transformative picture of the true potential in virtual reality, we have made it easy for a public with an increasingly short attention-span to shrug-off the technology as mere gimmick or child’s play. Fortunately, the key to resurrecting VR’s public image is laid bare within the promise of the technology itself; our hope lies in the far deeper and, in my mind, far more significant set of applications of Virtual Reality that has, to-date, gone totally underrepresented and unappreciated.
What’s going right
Take, for instance, the many applications to behavioral health management and treatment, where health care providers have been able to “[do] in one afternoon what would normally take 12 weeks.”
Or another example, where a Boeing test of augmented reality airplane assembly trainee performance was “30 percent faster and 90 percent more accurate” for the AR-equipped trainee sample.
What about the nonprofit sector? Could virtual reality somehow be leveraged to establish a deeper connection with potential donors and encourage philanthropy? In at least one case a charitable donor already committed to giving $40,000 was shown a 360 video documentary related to the charity’s cause and “was so moved by the story that he gave $400,000 instead”.
These are only three of the hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of non-entertainment VR applications with very real-world results that suggest that virtual riality technology holds the very real power to improve our lives in countless ways, increasing standards-of-living and quality-of-life outcomes in fashions we haven’t even imagined (and many that we have).
So while I fully understand the many understandable reservations that the general public holds in regards to the future of virtual reality, I emphatically encourage everyone to approach the technology with an open mind and not only recognize, but believe in the truly transformational possibilities that the “reality” of this burgeoning new technology holds for us all.
I believed enough to make Media Plural my new reality.
David Waltenbaugh is the Founder and Creative Director of Media Plural, an immersive media production and strategy company focused on stunning 360-degree video, spatial audio and music, and interactive content for brands, entertainment, education, and beyond.