Virtual Reality is one of the technologies that both have a tremendous amount of potential, but also struggle with the very high level of friction caused by the need for a VR headset.
The number of steps people have to take in order to experience VR, from putting on the headset, to downloading the VR app you want to use, and to do all the navigating to actually get it started ...is just insane.
The result is that today VR is not something we can 'snack on'. The mostly gimmicky experiments I have seen from publishers are just that. A gimmick that had a very short term period of fame when everything thought this was a new thing. But it's not a market.
There is no future for short gimmicky VR experiences.
In many ways, VR is similar to what we see with smartphones. In the early days, every publisher believed that the future was just to create apps, because then people would download them and it will all just be wonderful.
Today, of course, we have learned that people really only use a very few apps. So while we all have Instagram, Twitter and Facebook on our phones, hardly anyone have or use apps that only have occasional or short term use.
VR is the same thing. The idea that people will download a VR experience and then go through all the motions to set it up and prepare their headsets is just not happening.
So, from a trend perspective, what I see right now are three things.
First is the future trend, in which VR technology gets to a point where it no longer feels like a really cumbersome thing to use. For instance, the potential is much higher once we make VR truly mobile (like what Mark Zuckerberg talked about last year).
But we are nowhere near this point yet.
So, today, I see two other trends that define VR.
The first trend is the niche markets for high-end VR use. For instance, we see a very interesting business market for VR, like when car designers can design new cars in VR, or how you can use VR in education to train future workers for a much lower cost.
Those markets are really interesting.
We also see the high-end market for VR gaming. Obviously, the whole first person gaming industry is perfect for VR. But we are not talking simple VR anymore. We are talking about a fully immersive VR experience where you combine high-end gaming computers with the best headsets, with multi hand interface control mechanisms.
One example of this is the upcoming 'Star Trek: Bridge Crew' VR game, where a group of players can take control of the bridge of a starship, just like in the Star Trek movies.
And it's shockingly good. Here is what some of the Star Trek cast had to say about it.
Obviously, a game like this is the perfect example for VR done right, but the important element is that it isn't just a gimmick or something you try quickly. This is something you will be spending 30 to 50 hours with, if not more.
It's a macro-moment.
The reason I point this out is because what I see from publishers is always low-quality micro-moments. And that just doesn't work for a VR experience because of all the friction involved.
If I'm going to put on a headset, it's because I want to spend a long time with it. So watching a movie as a VR experience is great. But watching a 10 minute thing from a newspaper? What's the point of that?
So, the trend of high-end VR experiences is very interesting.
But there is also a third trend.
This is the trend of VR as a 'viewing' experience, where the focus isn't on getting people to experience VR directly, but to present it to them in the form of a narrated video experience. And, again, the gaming industry is doing most of the innovation here.
As we all know, there are two ways to experience a game. One way is to play the game yourself, which is really fun if that's what you want to do. But the other way is to watch someone else play the game, through which you experience their emotions and actions.
Why would people want to spend time watching someone else play a game, you ask? Oh, I don't know. Why do you watch football on TV?
It's the same thing. Millions of people watch football on TV almost every week, but most people don't actually play it themselves.
This is what we call 'Let's Players', and it's a massive media industry.
But the problem with VR is that it's very hard to stream to other people. How do you both stream what you see in the game, while at the same time bring people that all important connection to the let's player?
The way let's players usually do this is by turning to the good old TV concept of 'talking heads'. Like this:
Of course, let's players take this to a whole other level because often they engage directly with the audience, especially if it's done live. They interact with the chat stream, and when a decision has to be made in the game, they ask their audience for feedback, do polls, and generally just interact with people.
So, how can we do this if it's VR?
Well, one way to do it would just be to do the same thing. You have the video from the headset and then you have the 'talking head' in the corner.
And this is indeed what many let's players try to do. Here is one example:
As you can see, this is exactly the same concept, but it doesn't like the same thing. You don't have that same personal connection because the let's player (the presenter) is hidden behind a VR headset.
While in the first example, it feels like you are sharing an experience, when you do it in VR, it feels like you are just observing it from a distance. Those VR headsets create a barrier between you and the audience.
So how can we present VR based content to an audience, while still creating that all important connection? This is what all the let's players are trying to solve right now (and why this form of media is so interesting to learn from).
The latest example I have seen tries to solve it by bringing the audience with them into the games themselves. Not by forcing people to wear VR headsets (which most won't do), but by bringing the presenter into it as well.
Take a look at this video from Yogscast:
This is kind of amazing, because they mixed the VR footage with the let's players, but in a way so that they were all in the game itself.
You see how this was done in the first part of the video. Here you see how they are all sitting in front of a green screen, from which the background of the game was projected into.
As a result, you have the game footage, where you see exactly what each let's player saw, complete with a very useful text overlay so that you can see which person you are following at every moment.
Here you have Radders (Lauren) firing phasers.
And then they quickly switch to this view where you see the let's players themselves,
And look at how perfectly this is done.
The presenters are all wearing the right uniforms (which you can buy for $39 online), but also note how the background reflects where they are in the game itself, creating a fully immersive experience for the audience (you and me).
This is just brilliant.
Sure, you still can't really see the facial expressions, but this feels much more connected. As a viewer, you feel like you are in the game with them, or at least as close as we can be.
And while this was technically done in a studio, you could just as easily do this from anywhere else. In fact, if you look at how Twitch creators create livestreams, you will notice that a lot of them use green screen overlays to put them into the videos.
This is not some high-end fancy technology that you can only do in the studio. This is something everyone can do by simply buying a bit of chroma key fabric, or by painting a part of a wall the right chroma color.
The point being that to incorporate VR into your editorial strategy is about much more than just the technology. We have to think about the experience that we create instead of just creating pointless VR gimmicks.
Think about it like this:
There are two types of VR experiences.
There is the full VR experience where you convince people to put on a headset and actually interact in the VR world itself. And while this was a fun gimmick to begin with, this world is quickly moving into a macro-moment only type of interaction.
If we as publishers want to do this, we need to create something that is good enough for people to invest a long time with. Don't just create something that only takes five minutes, because nobody is going to use that.
But, then we also have the VR micro-moments.
These are the moments where we can use VR to tell people a much better story, but the audience isn't wearing VR headsets to watch it. Instead, like in the example above, this market is about how we can broadcast a VR experience to a non-VR viewer.
In other words, this is less about VR and more about doing journalism from an interactive first-person perspective... but we are using the technology of VR to create environments and graphics that normal graphics wouldn't convey.
So, we have these two very different markets for VR content. We have the macro-moments which are all about the high-end VR experiences that people can spend time with an explore. And then we have the micro-moments, where we use VR to create a much more immersive and first-person form of storytelling.
And from the trend perspective, the latter market (micro-moment VR through the eyes of someone else) looks to be the biggest market for publishers to engage with.
So learn from these YouTubers and gamers. They are currently the ones figuring out how to do this best, and how to present this experience to their viewers without forcing everyone to wear a headset.
Of course, in the future, this might change when VR becomes a mobile technology. But up until then, presenting VR in an audience engaging way is more important than creating the VR experiences itself.
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Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter
"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
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