VR’s Rocky Road to the Mainstream

For Mom and Pop America to buy into a new technology, they first need an answer to their inevitable “why do I need it?” question. And the answer to this question ends up being more want than need.

To get to that “want and can’t live without it” stage, content must be particularly suited to the unique attributes of the new medium, not simply content ported from old media.

Radio, for instance, had to move beyond straightforward news reading, sports reporting and music to dramatic and comedic presentations in order to shift from nice-to-have to must-have. Television trudged along as an expensive toy until programs transitioned from single stationary cameras shooting filmed stage performances to medium-appropriate, multi-camera content from innovators such as Lucille Ball and Ernie Kovacs.

Even the web started off by simply presenting content ported from existing sources like newspapers and magazines before finding its many medium-appropriate applications, such as social media, interactive entertainment and e-commerce.

Now comes a new entertainment content medium: virtual reality (VR). Like radio, TV and the web, VR is still struggling through its formative content stages. Most VR content consists of games, with many including only cursory, 360-degree virtual interaction beyond simplistic first person shooter (FPS). Game developers and filmmakers are still struggling to identify the right storytelling style/technology combination of this all-encompassing, POV-centric medium that would be compellingly different than current widescreen game play.

Eventually, innovators will develop a VR “killer app” or content type that exploits the VR 360-degree format in a way unique and appropriate to its immersive, all-encompassing capabilities. When this happens, it will create a whole new entertainment type that will entice mass curiosity and, eventually, mass adoption.

Unlike radio, TV and the web, however, it’ll take more than VR-specific content before critical mainstream home penetration can happen. VR suffers multiple format, ergonomic and technical issues that could delay or even permanently impede its path to the radio-TV-web mainstream.

Format and Ergonomic Hurdles

First off, VR isn’t one thing. You’ve got mobile VR, game console VR, PC-based VR, two- or four-sensor VR, Microsoft’s MR and, coming soon, XR (eXtended Reality), which promises to combine all the VR and AR concepts into a single format.

VR is already a vague enough concept for Mom and Pop America to grok. Having to explain the functional differences between these various VR forms—you need sensors/you don’t need sensors, you can move in some/you can’t move in others, you can see the controllers/you can’t see the controllers—does not bode well for adoption much beyond its gaming base.

On the technical side, content resolution varies widely. While animation/CG-centric gaming content isn’t an issue, real-life video content is often either fuzzy or screen-doored, or both. This resolution problem results from stretching out 2K or even 4K resolution to fill a 360-degree spherical view—think about a tab of butter that is plenty to slather on a small dinner roll, but barely enough to thinly cover a sandwich-sized slice of bread.

Then there are VR’s ergonomic issues. VR goggles are essentially blindfolds, which means locating the controllers and any other hardware once you put the headset on requires assistance. Plus, most home VR systems such as Microsoft’s MR outfits and HTC Vibe require the set-up of room sensors to enable a user to physically “move” within a virtual environment rather than use directional commands on a control pad—a tough sell for most households.

These user ergonomic and set-up issues are one reason why we’re seeing a growing number of attendant-supported VR arcades in movie theater lobbies and standalone parlors, such as the HTC Vibe-equipped VR World NYC on East 34th Street in Manhattan, which, with its 50 stations, bills itself as “the largest virtual reality center on this side of the planet.”

CES 2018 is sure to contain a multitude of VR demonstrations. But VR’s content, format, technical and ergonomic issues could keep a critical mass of consumers, other than early adopters, from actually heading to a store to buy a rig for use at home.