When did we stop pushing for the mass adoption of Virtual Reality?
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
I was recently at the Cannes Film Festival where the pilot episode of my virtual reality series, The PhoenIX, was part of the NEXT VR showcase. I attended a number of VR panels and events and in one such panel, focused on monetising VR content, I came across something that baffled me. I’m not going to name names here but suffice it to say that the panel consisted of VCs investing in VR, a large VR studio and an established tech leader in media and entertainment who is aggressively expanding into VR. These are people who live and breathe VR (I assume, since they’re sharing their wisdom on it). The general consensus across the panel was that people needed more VR content for high end VR headsets (eg: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Playstation VR — almost all require a USD1000+ investment).
The PhoenIX at Cannes 2017
I raised my hand and asked, “Research has shown that in 2016 something like 80 million cardboards had been distributed in the market. Yet, this panel seems focused on discussing content for the 1.5 million or so people with high-end headsets. Why are we ignoring the mass market?”
The response was a little muddled. One person doubted the number was so high and mentioned they probably consisted of “throw-away cardboards” where people get them free and maybe use them once and dispose of them. Another person indicated that monetisation was far more feasible in high end VR: surely, if people are willing to drop money for these headsets they would be willing to pay for the content that comes with it? Others sat silently. There was no decisive answer.
Why are we ignoring 90% of the VR user base?
When news of the Oculus Rift first came out it was made very clear that it was primarily a gaming device. The slogan in its Kickstarter campaign was “Step Into the Game” after all. These first few high end and expensive VR devices were originally dedicated to gaming. (And indeed, gamers now seem to be the biggest consumers of VR.)
Then something interesting happened. Google released the Google Cardboard and Samsung came out with the Gear VR and suddenly we had access to VR through our mobile phones — way more affordable and not for gaming (mainly due to hardware restrictions).
Everyone with a powerful-enough smartphone could experience VR. Everyone.
That was when I personally started paying attention to VR. As a filmmaker I was excited by what I could create. I came up with a formula of sorts for creating VR content for a wider audience:
A low barrier of entry — by being available across the majority of VR devices and didn’t require much, if anything of a viewer except looking around and absorbing its awesomeness.
Appeals to a wide audience — by being entertaining and having a strong narrative
Invites repeat viewing — by being episodic
This what I’m focusing on when working on my VR series, The PhoenIX. The aim is to create a show that’s so good it will push people to go out and buy a VR headset to watch it. It’s more commonly known as the “killer app”.
A screenshot from Episode 1 of The PhoenIX
For companies focused on gaming, the “killer app”, of course, is a game. For Facebook the answer seems to exist in the area of community and social interaction. Different strokes for different folks.
What baffles me though, is that this quest for the killer app seems to be driven by what companies want rather than what the users of VR want. In one of my previous blogs, I reviewed Google’s Daydream and questioned why they created a controller. I thought the purpose of it was to provide an ergonomic and convenient way of traversing VR content. However, for Google and now Samsung, it seems to be another way to allow users to play games in mobile VR. And I must ask, why? Mobile VR has the most market penetrationbecause it can cater to everyone, but not everyone wants to play a game. Users from different backgrounds have different desires.
If we’re creating content primarily for gamers then how can you have mass adoption? You are simply feeding your existing user base and not seeking to actively expand it. Let’s work on getting some awesome non-gaming content out there and then proceed to develop these accessories and add-ons.
Let VR learn to walk before we ask it to run.
Incidentally, PwC’s recently released a report on Global entertainment and media outlook. It says mobile VR is going to blow other forms of VR out of the water, and that video (vs gaming) is where the majority of the money’s going to come from.
The harsh truth is, if the future of VR is primarily focused on gaming then you can forget about mass adoption. You have to create hardware and content for everyone and not just for gamers. Yes, I understand that gaming is the quickest route to monetisation and commercialisation but it is at the cost of isolating the remaining billions of potential users. We have to develop a strong base from which to build VR on. I feel that we are losing sight of our true audience — who are not just gamers or techies — VR is for everyone. Let’s not forget that.
Abhi Kumar is Chief Creative Director at Warrior9. He believes that VR is the next frontier in the content revolution and is currently working on the first animated sci-fi series in VR, The PhoenIX. Find out more at The PhoenIX website.