VR: is it any surprise that it’s all about content?

I don’t think anyone will be shocked about the main outcomes of a recent survey carried out by Vicon: the two main barriers to widespread adoption are perceived to be cost and high quality content. This hasn’t really changed since the last VR explosion over a decade ago.

In simple terms, these two criteria are achievable. Affordable tech is just around the corner from Sony, HTC etc, and an even lower entry barrier exists in the use of current high end phones plus Google Cardboard. The visual quality of the content even on these low-end platforms blows the old VR experiences out of the water. But this over-simplifies the situation.

First off, affordability is not the only factor regarding the hardware is comfort/ease of use. Do people want to be hooked up to some PC/set-top box/console through a cumbersome umbilical? Will they remember to ensure their wireless version is charged, and will their WiFi/Bluetooth hold up reliably (especially if the whole family are using it)?

Secondly, high quality of course doesn’t just apply to the visual fidelity, how many games have made the mistake of thinking great graphics = commercial success? Yes we can push hi-res images into your eyes in stereo at framerates that won’t make you feel ill, but what are the pictures of? We we want to engage with it, and for how long?

People are getting wary of the hype. We were sold stereo 3D as the next revolution in linear media (for the umpteenth time), and yes, the blockbuster films can still fill cinemas, but they may well do that anyway. Where’s all the great content in my living room?

I sat there, excitedly awaiting the BBC’s first broadcast in 3D from Wimbledon, which was a perfect example of a “what’s the point” moment: unless the ball is going to hit you in the face, tennis in 3D adds little to tennis in 2D. Likewise the Olympics, is it really worth the hassle to watch the 100 metre final in 3D?  Other TV shows were more impressive, such as the Strictly final and Dr Who special, because there’s more control and staging that you can do to make the most of the stereo effect.  Hardly surprising that BBC pulled the plug on the experiment. I wonder how many 3D glasses are now sitting neglected in the corner of living rooms around the world?

So as ever, content is king. We need engaging, compelling content to go to the trouble of popping on that headset or pressing that cardboard to our face. And it’s coming.

Was any Star Wars fan at SIGGRAPH last year not excited by the work at ILM’s XLab? Being able to wander around the Star Wars universe while the story unfolds, seeing different aspects of the story or moving the camera to watch from a different angle is FUN. Being chased by aliens in the The Mill/Google ATAP ‘Help’ is FUN.  Playing Minecraft on an Oculus Rift is FUN!

So whilst the survey tells us some truths about what the future of VR needs, they’re not new nor are they a shock. What is important is that this time, there’s a much greater chance of getting this right. The pieces are all there, we just need to put them together in the right way.