Social VR — The Hero We All Deserve?
VR buzzword of the month: Social.
‘1 billion people in virtual reality’. That’s another hot headline that I’ve already seen in three separate decks in the same conference. Another common thread in all three of those presentations was that I never once heard anybody say anything about how those billion people will interact whilst surfing the meta-verse we are all watching take shape.
Listen, we all know that putting something over our faces isn’t ideal, especially when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone. Maybe we could all stick googly-eyes to the outside of our headsets and approach it that way, but interacting through virtual reality is one primed for creative exploration to achieve the ‘window to the soul’ effect. Headsets, which are only now starting to become wireless, will not go away any time soon so for now Avatar’s will have to do — but what kind of practices can we use for true interactive immersion alongside them?
Recently, from speaking on panels with others in the industry, one thing everybody seems to agree on is that virtual reality seems to age in dog years. In the space of the past twelve months alone the developments and progress seen is astounding considering the early projections and yet people are still questioning whether it will take off any time soon, of if the market even exists in the first place. I’ve heard theories ranging from it’s doomed in the face of AR or that it’s too consumer unfriendly and unyielding or that it’s too expensive or that it’s scrambling around in the trough of disillusionment (not entirely untrue…), but the bottom line is: it’s here to stay.
Investment in the industry has been substantial, with the total now in the billions, but we have seen 2017 pale slightly in comparison to its predecessor, which is why everyone seems to be losing their minds. But it’s important to differentiate where this money has been previously spent, and where it’s currently being thrown.
With less money being thrown at headset development now that many of the leaders are established and growing organically, the path is clear for other areas of the spectrum to begin taking shape. This includes our aforementioned social aspect but other interesting and emerging use cases such as eCommerce and B2B and Enterprise solutions.
We’re also seeing less investment in cameras, but this is also because it’s now a saturated market. Another day another VR camera so it would seem, and given the recent announcements from the Samsung Developers Conference, in which another new camera was announced from a major company, and Oculus Connect 4 in which too many things were announced (wireless headsets! lower prices!), both immediately riding in the coat-tails of the demise of the Nokia Ozo, the outlook suggests that the discontinuation of the de-facto poster camera is merely a speed-bump and not a fork in the road in this sector.
‘The adoption of commercial VR is taking longer than expected’ — Nokia, regarding their reasoning behind pulling the plug.
‘Too expensive’, ‘Complicated workflow’ — Everyone else.
First and foremost, this isn’t necessarily the ‘dark day’ for VR that people have been frightened of. It’s obviously disappointing to see a stalwart camera leave the race and to see people lose their jobs, but perhaps what we should consider here is the unsustainable business model and the staggering price-point OR: they were too early. Either argument is ripe for contention. This doesn’t take away any value that the camera achieved fantastic cinematic and stereoscopic results and introduced and plugged the value of live streaming.
My opinion: It wasn’t social enough (code for too expensive).
Which brings us to the case in point. The only way forward for emerging technologies is to arm the consumers; if you want to enable the masses with the medium then make it affordable. We’re already seeing VR companies taking the lead with socially aimed marketing strategies with the ultimate theory that mass adoption will only be achieved through mass involvement at a reasonable price point. It’s easier said than done, an interesting problem with no one single answer.
Roadblock number one: Virtual Reality is inherently expensive as it stands. Not just the headsets or the cameras but the essential infrastructure needed to support any of it.
Let’s apply the MasterCard campaign here (prices rounded):
VR ready laptop: $1200 or: VR ready PC Integration: $1200-$2000
VR Headset (Rift Bundle)& Platform: $500
Average Price of VR Game: $50
The immersion and experience of VR: Priceless.
And this is just the bare minimum to get up and running as a consumer, factoring in the improved price point for the Oculus Rift Bundle and the price of a low-range VR laptop. If we take into account the HTC Vive (my personal preference) or the PSVR then you’re looking at slightly higher spending. The only way around this is to already have a substantial computer with a high-end graphics card so that the underlying foundation can be sidestepped. Its 2017 — I don’t have a PC at home. Maybe I should?
Hence roadblock number two:
Where are all the users?
It still astounds me that the average person I know has still never tried a VR experience let alone go out and purchase it, even my brother, an avid life-long gamer, has no real interest in buying into the industry. Maybe that has something to do with that fact that he stands firmly on the Xbox side of the fence, but something something it’s too expensive. See point number one.
It’s the same old story: everyone seems to know about it, and think its cool, but this is just another side effect of the ridiculously overblown hype circle that has done the rounds over the past few years. I’ve always tried to base my own assumptions and statistics by probing my immediate circle, and given I live in a major city that has a major virtual reality presence, I find that already the responses I get are reason enough for me to assume that the random John Doe on the street hasn’t invested in the tech. While it may seem like I’m just throwing fuel on the fire of the doubters, my opinion is more simple: the intent is there, the access is not.
Whenever I see articles loaded with usage statistics I always sit there with my fingers twiddling my chin, wondering how they’ve measured this data and hoping that its not simply based on cardboard sales. That all circles back to one of the major problems I have, and users have in general: mobile platform support.
I like to call it the iOS problem.
Being an apple fanboy I am forced to download apps to navigate the problem that my iPhone doesn’t support VR anywhere near how well Androids do or how Google phones do. Apple don’t have any official support for mobile VR although the intent from users is clearly there. This circles back to the Ozo problem — enable the masses and watch the market grow. Somebody once told me to ‘follow apple’ when planning investments or predicting market growth in any sector; imagine how many would jump on board if Apple simply released a compatible platform. We’ve observed market spikes in VR content downloads coinciding with the release of previous devices like the Google Daydream and the Samsung Gear VR. Here’s another metric you can measure yourself: what phone do you use? How about your family? Roommates? It’s 2017 — you’re probably seeing more iPhones.
Mobile VR is really where the market has to grow; the non-gaming VR community has so much untapped potential. We all have a phone in our pockets ready to go.
These two main roadblocks are stopping VR from moving into the realms of Snapchat, Instagram and Twitch.
Step forward the next wave of interactive VR. The market is beginning to show signs of realization in the common problems, especially the complicated infrastructure requirements and headset limitations. The mid quarter of 2017 was problematic in a massive way for the industry and this is where we’ve seen plenty of VR startups fall out of the game and/or lose interest. This is now where I fall back to the theory of the hype cycle.
The slope of enlightenment is beginning to take shape. We’re seeing an awareness take shape for a more social and mainstream focus. The early adopter period is coming to an end and now that enough time has passed for headsets to start becoming untethered and with giants like Facebook making outrageous adoption goals, maybe the industry is about to emerge out of the recent funk, much to the relief of all the doubting investors.
So where does Social VR stand right now and what are the practices?
- Avatars in Collaborative Spaces
This is fairly self explanatory. Facebook spaces is obviously a prime example here, utilizing the platform to demonstrate how VR is better with company. I couldn’t agree more. A personal example that I love and use is Rec Room, which is always a fun experience and gives me the underlying feeling that I’m not isolated but rather the opposite. For now at least, Avatars are good enough to demonstrate the simple fact that collaborative spaces are more immersive than solo adventures in the metaverse.
2. Communication Between Users
Adding a layer of communication in collaborative spaces is still in the very early stages. The concept is simple once again: sharing experiences as they happen and being able to talk to others. Going to a concert with friends while in a headset and not feeling isolated, singing along together or heckling. Sharing a live-streaming experience. Experiential marketing, personalized branding experiences: It’s all possible now, albeit still in the beta stage, but this is the future of live-streaming VR. Zero-latency and real time communication. Its already been observed in the porn world that when the user has the idea of control over the performer through verbal instructions retention has been improved. Currently, at Suometry, our beta platform conVRsation does just this, offering live-communication in a real-time 3D 360 environment, perfect for education, training and anything that involves two way communication in VR.
A perfect example of these first two factors being utilized in a brilliant way is The Void, a location based entertainment platform that provides an incredibly immersive experience using warehouse-scale tracking and full body avatars. I was lucky enough to try out the Ghostbusters experience in Toronto and was left with my mouth on the floor. It’s a poster child for how VR can be a social event, a fun thing to do with friends, and that’s exactly what needs to happen on a large scale.
So this is really, once again it’s only my opinion, the major factor in making VR creation independent and accessible to masses. WebVR is based on the theory of platform independence, that is, it supports any headset. When developing offline there is the need to implement an SDK for each HMD in order to use it. This is already a massive hurdle and expensive, so removing it paves way for massive online development possibility. Remember when you had to download an IM client to chat with your friends or when you had to download an app to attend a conference or webinar: this is all a thing of the past in the time of social media and online presentation apps (Brighttalk, Twitch, Youtube etc). It all plays into the fact that the average developer of anything app-based in 2017 knows one fundamental notion about the user: everybody is lazy. WebVR empowers the average developer, or even those who have no prior development experience, to build VR in a way that relies on open-sourcing. Oh yeah, and it’s FREE. More developers means more chances at discovering or creating that killer app. WebVR has the chance to spread uniformity in the way VR is created and accessed. You decide how important that is.
What does this all mean? Virtual reality needs to be social to survive? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly one way forward. Socially targeted startups are beginning to sprout, one of my favorite’s I’ve read about recently is Roland Emmerich’s (yes the guy that directed Independence Day…and Independence Day 2…) social VR startup Vrenetic. Their platform Vresh is about combining VR with social media. I love the trailer for the platform, not only because it features a lot of the things I’ve spoke about here, but also because it actually has a use case that I could see taking off. More and more it’s starting to become increasingly apparent that modelling it off existing working formulas (social media…experience sharing…) is the model to emulate.
All of these factors aim to increases one of the main metrics to measure the success of a VR experience and the industry in general: time spent in the headset. This is an often disregarded metric but it is absolutely the most important for content creators and filmmakers.
I believe Social VR is the next big thing. Experiences are better when shared with friends. It’s time for the stigma of the ‘inherently antisocial’ medium to be broken.
Want to try it for yourself? Schedule a demo with conVRsation by sending me a message! I’d be happy to chat…in the metaverse!
PS: I’ve used ‘VR’ 50 times in this article. Talk about throwing it around loosely.
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