“Current virtual reality experiences are too expendable”

Brandwidth's head of innovation and Develop:VR keynote speaker Dean Johnson says the industry needs to make tech less disposable

A major obstacle virtual reality needs to overcome before it will find mainstream acceptance is moving away from 'throwaway' experiences towards projects that have more impact.

That's according to Brandwidth head of innovation Dean Johnson, who opened today's Develop:VR conference as its keynote speaker. During his session, entitled Virtual Tipping Point, he said the current wave of VR games and experiences - while impressive - aren't enough to cement the technology as the mainstay it could potentially be.

"The problem is VR is still expendable," he said. "At the moment, if we took away your smartphone it would be like having your arm or your head chopped off. You wouldn't cope, and that's just part of our society right now. If we took VR away now, we would all be disappointed to say the least, but outside this room, outside all of these conferences and conversations, most people haven't tried it - let alone know what it is. So if it went away, they wouldn't give a shit.

"We need to make sure if VR is taken away from that wider audience, they would want say 'hey, no, bring it back'. At the moment that's not the case."

He suggested that experiences beyond games and entertainment, that are beneficial to real-world sectors such as education could be the key to making VR vital. An example he pointed to was the Lockheed Martin experiment when a school bus was outfitted with screens on its windows and took a class of children on a field trip to the surface of Mars. As the bus turned, the view of the planet depicted on the screens turned, making passengers really feel like they were present.

The promotional video included soundbites of children saying they now wanted to go to Mars when they were older - a sentiment Johnson leapt on as a sign of VR's power.

"If you are encouraging kids to strive to genuinely better themselves, what a brilliant way to do it," he said. "That's how you start to make VR not just acceptable but irreplaceable.

"At the moment, we're really fixed on the amazing experiences we can provide and create but they're really disposable. We quickly move on to the next one, and the next, and so on. Part of that is our nature: in the YouTube generation, our attention span is minimal because it can be, because there's so much stuff out there. But if you create content that means there's a reason to go back, that there's a reason to extend it beyond VR... if it's encouraging them to do or create something in the real world, that's adding value and extending that experience."

However, he also stressed that virtual reality represents a future for games and entertainment, not the only path forward. He dismissed the notion that cinemas will be replaced by VR 360-degree films because not all movies lend themselves to this format, and added that "Candy Crush doesn't need to be in VR".

As part of his talk, Johnson weighed up the pros and cons of each major headset on the market and was highly critical of Daydream View, Google's portal into its new virtual reality platform.

"Daydream View is the most disappointing piece of technology I've used in 2016," he told attendees. "The benchmark was Google Cardboard so obviously it was going to do better than that, but the next was Gear VR so you'd hope it would do better than that.

"But with light leaks and lens distortion, it's not good enough. If that's in their flagship store, showing people what the future is, it's not good enough."

Daydream was announced earlier this year, with the View headset launching last month. Google has positioned it as a significant step beyond its work with Google Cardboard, which Johnson says has been instrumental in putting virtual reality - albeit its most basic form -in the hands of both consumers and non-games brands.

The speaker commended Samsung for becoming market leader with Gear VR, noting that the firm has "done a brilliant job" of making virtual reality more accessible and was sensible in not competing with Oculus but working with the VR pioneer instead.

He also praised Sony for the "superb job" the platform holder has done with PlayStation VR, which he argued is the most affordable form of premium virtual reality when compared to expensive PC setups. "If you already happen to have a PlayStation 4, 300 is a drop in the ocean to get access to virtual reality," he said.

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Latest comments (3)

Robert Bantin Senior Audio Programmer, Massive EntertainmentA year ago
It think it's by and large a problem of the early adopters being unable to show the tech off to other people.

Premium set-ups are installations that you have to take people to. That's way harder than pulling it out of your pocket and handing it to someone to try out. The first iPhone was crazy money, but they were in a few hands, and most people saw the point (mostly the capacitive touch display) immediately. Most people bought one based on that single experience, the sales volume went up and the street price fell to something affordable.

If you've never had a premium VR experience, you just won't understand how fundamentally different it is to an first-person camera view on a standard TV or monitor. I have a Vive set up at home, and whenever I have guests I make sure they have a go so they can form an oppinion. At that point, everybody "gets it" irrespective of age or interest in videogames.

It's going to take a long time to get the word out simply because the premium VR systems are stuck in people's houses.
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Jordan Lund Columnist A year ago
Virtual Shopping.

Being able to walk around a virtual New York City is cool. Being able to go into any virtual store, hold virtual merchandise, try it on and buy it will be the killer VR app.

But it's going to entail a lot more infrastructure to make it work.
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When we all have home deprivation tanks...that's when it will take off, but by then...lotsa surrogate bodies too
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