Fad or Future: Is VR Content Worth Investing In?
When the Oculus Rift raised $2.5 million in 2012 (and went on to be bought by Facebook just two years later for a remarkable $2 billion), it heralded the growth of the VR industry that would take place over the following years. The now-ubiquitous image of the plastic headset has become synonymous with VR technology, and technology expos are rife with consumers swatting at invisible insects and barrelling down stomach-churning virtual roller coasters.
But while this leap in mainstream attention is undeniable, it’s also important to place this relatively-short period of time within the wider context of the history of VR. After all, VR machines have existed in some form for decades — Morton Heilig’s Sensorama Simulator machine was patented and functional way back in 1962.
And if you’ve been around for at least a few of those decades, you’ll know that there’s long been an ebb and flow to the buzz of VR technology. Someone notable sings its praises, or a new piece of kit hits the market, and the market is infused with a sense of childlike wonder and optimism… for a while. After that, it dies down again.
The impartial observer, then, might well conclude that this pattern is just going to repeat over and over again for decades still to come. But is this true? Will the current generation of headsets hit a wall and drift off the market, or will the coming years see VR finally deliver on its obvious promise and achieve popular appeal through exceeding consumer expectations? That’s what we’re going to ask — and try to answer — in this article. Let’s get started.
The possibilities (and viability) of current-generation VR tech
Of all the contenders with any kind of mainstream support, the most recent (and most advanced) to hit the market is the HTC VIVE Pro, which released earlier in 2018. While it bumped up the per-eye resolution to 1440 x 1600 using updated AMOLED screens, it only offered iterative improvements on the headset model of the original rift.
All the fundamental issues of the first-generation Oculus Rift remained in place — the discomfort of having a lumbering plastic device strapped to your head for extended periods, the eyestrain produced by glaring close-range at digital screens, and the problem of motion sickness in systems that simulate movement without really suiting it, to name a few of the top drawbacks.
So, what kind of content does this support? Anything where you’re fixed in place (or move step-by-step through preset paths) and the emphasis is on the visual experience. There can be interactivity, yes, through largely though cumbersome custom controllers — plastic rifles for shooting games, plastic grippers for tactile puzzle games, etc.
The issue there is obvious: the interactivity has (thus far) been the main selling point of VR devices. People who simply want to watch media will use TV displays and be left with sore strap-marks on their faces. If the interactivity of VR is still just a practical novelty, then where is the lasting mainstream appeal to come from?
The relative practicality of AR tech
Unlike VR, AR (augmented reality) has already achieved widespread usefulness. Because it’s now possible to view AR content through an average smartphone, more and more businesses are investing in AR software and apps — particularly in the ecommerce world, where even the slickest of online store systems remains inferior in some significant ways to the old brick-and-mortar model that allowed people to tangibly interact with potential purchases.
As such, if the titular question were about AR, the answer would be a clear and resounding “Yes” for anyone determined to keep up with shifting UX standards. Consider what Ikea accomplished with its Ikea Place app. Through equipping online customers to easily preview how certain products would look in their homes, it made progress towards overcoming that experiential gap in trust.
With suitably advanced AR tech, an online customer can know with a decent degree of certainty whether a selected furniture item is going to fit (and look good) in the space they need to fill. And while this currently functions for size, shape, and color, it’s likely that eventually there will be a facility to factor in properties such as weight and texture somehow — not in how users interact with the virtual products, but in how the virtual products interact (confirming that a selected desk can hold the heavy items selected to be placed on it, for instance).
Because VR is not moored in the real world, it lacks the obvious applications of AR. It would be relatively simple to create a 3D VR layout in an app, but without that link to a real environment it wouldn’t be especially useful for the purposes we just covered. So while brands all over the world are allocating budgets for Place-style apps and gamification systems, they remain lukewarm on VR. And it might seem at this point that I’m similarly lukewarm on it, but that actually isn’t the case. In fact, I think it has an incredible future (emphasis very significant). So let’s look ahead.
What needs to change for VR to fulfill its potential
In anticipating where VR may eventually go, it’s tempting to leap to the possibility of complex sensory feedback systems that could produce Matrix-style realities, but I prefer to stick to what seems imminently achievable. Any such system would need to go through long-term testing — if the technology were market-ready today, it would still be years away from popular release.
To that end, let’s look at the biggest things holding VR back at the moment, and consider how they’re likely to be resolved (or mitigated) in the coming years:
- Processing demands.It takes a powerful machine (by today’s standards) to generate high-quality VR imagery. In the future, I suspect we’ll see cloud processing streamed over internet connections. Today’s networks aren’t up to the task yet, but once infrastructure advances to that point, I expect to see subscription VR services along the lines of Netflix or Amazon Prime.
- Cable attachments.It’s difficult to fully enjoy an immersive VR experience when your headset is attached by a lengthy cable to your PC or games console, but this problem will be resolved by wireless transmission. The HTC VIVE devices actually have a wireless kit about to be released, so it will be interesting to see how well that performs.
- A lack of content.There isn’t much VR content available outside of the gaming enthusiast world, because it’s a very fresh industry and there isn’t much incentive for big brands to target VR. As the technology matures, this problem should go away.
- As previously noted, staring at tiny screens just ahead of your eyes is inevitably going to cause some eyestrain that will discourage people from spending very long using VR tech, but the current headset type might not be the end game. Back in 2016, the Avegant Glyph headset proved that it’s viable to use reflected light beams instead of screens to mimic how we actually see — and while its implementation was flawed, it’s a new technology. Given time, it could work wonders.
- Even if you have a device capable of running VR content, a good headset will set you back hundreds of dollars. Given its current niche appeal, this price puts it well outside of the means of the average consumer (in the ecommerce world, you could buy or sell a businessfor less than you’d spend on a fully kitted-out HTC VIVE Pro setup).
If all of these issues are addressed as I anticipate — data and content is streamed wireless, content production reaches a tipping point, eyestrain is solved, and costs come down dramatically — then I can easily envision it becoming very common for people to spend hours of leisure time using VR content, and for VR headsets to become fixtures in business environments. But now it’s time to return to the titular question, which concerns only today. Is VR content worth investing in now? That depends on various things. Let’s take a closer look.
The value of factoring VR into your content strategy now
Regardless of what exactly your business does, if you have ambitions for further growth, you’ll have an overall inbound marketing strategy, and that strategy will encompass content production of some kind. You’ll likely produce blog posts, guides, resources, infographics, and anything else you deem of interest to your target audience and likely to return value to your business.
Now, the prospect of producing VR content should seem very intimidating, because it’s a major department from that standard formula. Not only does it require a totally different set of skills (likely provided by a VR-focussed developer), but it demands a much broader and deeper understanding of customer preferences, as well as a solid plan for getting people to actually experience and engage with the content — no easy task today.
The organizations that have already been able to use VR well have clearly put a lot of thought into their execution. Most notably, they have either provided the necessary hardware (at a store, or at an event) or made their content also viewable through conventional means (a 360-degree video can be viewed through a VR headset, or in 2D using panning controls).
On that note, if you’re going to produce VR content in the next few years, 360-degree videos are going to be the way to proceed — the necessary cameras are relatively cheap now, and the content will be viable today while retaining future-proof functionality. But I actually wouldn’t introduce VR content of any other kind to your content strategy today. Not for some time.
Does this mean you shouldn’t invest in VR content? Yes… and no. You shouldn’t invest money in creating it, but you should invest time in learning about it. Here’s the real takeaway of this entire piece: VR isn’t much use for today’s small or medium enterprise, but that’s going to change. It might not be for a decade, but it’s going to happen, and you’d be well served being ahead of the curve when it comes to familiarity.
Think back to when the smartphone appeared, and how sluggish website owners were in adapting to the need for mobile-responsive content. If you develop your understanding of VR tech today — and, most importantly, consider how VR content might one day work for you — then you can be fully prepared to jump on the VR trend when the time is right.