Since the advent of Oculus Rift, the video gaming community in particular has been salivating over VR and just how amazing it could be. You could almost hear a collective groan of nerd rage on the day Facebook announced that it bought Oculus for 2 billion. The concern, of course, was that Facebook might pull the focus from hardcore gaming. In a way, maybe it has, we’re on track to see the Oculus powered Samsung Gear VR hit the consumer market before the Oculus Rift.
Ever since then, there’s been subtle animosity between the gaming community and the cinematic VR community that is growing louder by the day. The truth is, they both help each other more than they know.
Real VR is a Lofty Goal
The most commonly overheard negative comment from the gaming industry about spherical video content is, “It’s not real VR.” Real VR needs interaction. You need to be able to change things in the virtual world around you. You need to be able to move freely, have your hands, legs, feet or other body parts (we’ll let you imagine which ones) involved for it to be actual Virtual Reality. And you need to feel your surroundings.
Given those requirements, Virtual Reality asks for a lot. For starters, you need a very fast computer or console to power your device. You’ve also go to tether yourself to it with wires. To move about freely, you need open space. Add some tracking cameras to improve accuracy. And then controllers, so we can know what your hands are doing.
Some analysts point out that mainstream adoption of this VR, the “real” VR, could take 5 years before (or if) it becomes a staple in most households. Perhaps rightfully so, they are skeptical that most consumers will make this kind of investment early on.
Samsung Took a Shortcut
Somewhere along the line, an alternate reality was added to VR’s timeline at Oculus. Mobile VR. An experience without wires, needing no installation of special drivers or graphics card configuration. All you had to do was plug your phone into these goggles and you were good to go.
For 360 Labs, this changed everything in late 2014. We had given thousands of demos of our 360 spherical video content. In the days before headsets became popular, even just the fact that you could move your phone to change the perspective was absolutely mind blowing to most viewers. Everyone who watched wanted to know how they could take it and show it to others, but before YouTube and Facebook supported 360 spherical content - this was quite an ordeal to explain. You had to download apps, side-load files into your phone, and that’s if your phone was even compatible.
The smartphone wielding audience is almost 2 billion strong. It was clear to us that people seriously enjoyed watching 360 videos, but they just needed a user friendly way to do it. The Samsung Gear VR couldn’t have come along at a better time. Soon after, YouTube announced 360 video support, and later this year Facebook would follow.
Does it matter whether spherical video content fits the true definition of VR? Aren’t these experiences paving the way for millions of users to discover more and better VR in the future, while getting them used to the idea of buying and wearing a head-mounted display?
Is VR in Danger of Feature Creep?
For some people, VR will never be good enough until it’s like the holodeck from Star Trek. New products are being announced almost weekly, hardware is getting better, new chips are being designed, new methods of capture are being prototyped as we speak. With 5-10 years of technological advancement, 5 times the resolution, and quadruple the bandwidth we might see something like this in our lifetime.
We’re in a pretty good economic state right now in the US. It even feels a little bit like the dot.com bubble at the moment. Ideas are getting funded, new products are being developed. You can’t read technology news today without hearing about how somebody scored 10 million here, 25 million there for some sort of VR related hardware or platform. But will it last forever? How many millions (or even billions) can we spend on that perfect holodeck before somebody wants to see some ROI?
At what point do we call Virtual Reality a 1.0 product? This is as good as it gets right now, and obviously it will improve in the future. Whether you call spherical video VR or not, millions of people are watching it, sharing it, pushing it to viral levels of impact. How can we ignore this audience and this demand? Obviously Samsung didn’t. It makes me wonder why more cell phone manufacturers aren’t jumping on that bandwagon.
Stop Comparing Apples and Oranges
I'll admit, there's plenty of bad spherical videos out there right now. Even some of the award winning projects that are getting major press coverage have given me headaches due to their poor implementation of stereoscopic 3D. But even if this content gives somebody an unpleasant experience, who's to say they won't still try VR again in the future? If I have 1 bad apple, does that mean I'll never enjoy an orange? Is this industry really that fragile? The same audience that will download the New York Times VR app may not be the same audience who will rope off a 12x12 foot space in their home for an HTC Vive.
I think we'll definitely see two types of audiences for VR content, those who will enjoy passive videos they can watch, and those who want to interact with VR and gamify the experience. These aren't necessarily the same market. Content creators are using what we have available today, with today's technology, to try their best at creating immersive experiences. These experiences are VR's gateway drug, attracting people who otherwise didn't even care about VR because they're not big on video games. So before anybody gets upset about spherical videos and photos poisoning the well, perhaps we should consider who's well we are talking about?
One Constant: VR’s Future is Bright
If it weren’t for Oculus, who brought VR back from the dead, we wouldn’t be in this position. But if it weren’t for the panoramic photographers and 360 video pioneers of the world who have been working in spherical content for 20 years or more, VR 1.0 would not have enough content to keep an audience occupied.
Despite what VR is or what it will someday become, spherical video and photo content is turning on millions of consumers who will be future guests in your holodeck of the future. Can we just admit we need each other, and get along?