Virtual reality: it's more than shoot-'em-up games and full-on porn

Laura Slattery dons VR goggles for the first time sending her brain over the virtual reality cliff

US president Barack Obama with a virtual-reality device, “staring at his hand as if he has unexpectedly caught a moonbeam”. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

US president Barack Obama with a virtual-reality device, “staring at his hand as if he has unexpectedly caught a moonbeam”. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

 

For a couple of years now, the picture wires have been doing a steady trade in a genre that can be defined with pinpoint accuracy as People Looking Silly Wearing Virtual-Reality Headsets.

Everybody from kids in slogan T-shirts at tech conferences to the world leaders we trust with nuclear buttons has been invited to try a Samsung Gear VR or a HTC Vive or some other headset in exhibition areas where photographers are gleefully lurking by.

From the outside looking in, it’s impossible to imagine what the headset-sporters are seeing – and indeed “experiencing”, rather than “seeing” is the correct word here. Even Barack Obama looks daft with one, staring at his hand as if he has unexpectedly caught a moonbeam.

After dodging the demos at several media events, my virtual-reality duck was finally broken this summer during a visit to Facebook’s international headquarters, which is simultaneously 10 minutes down the street and several worlds away from my own non-virtual desk.

Five minutes with an Oculus Rift headset strapped on, my memory of the demonstration room looked like when I walked into it was completely gone, and the faces of the two Facebook employees who were in the room with me were also beyond recall. I was at a birthday party for a lonely hedgehog.

Soon after, “sitting” in a virtual 1960s living room while trying to carry on a conversation with disembodied voices from 2016, I unconsciously tried to rest my elbow on the arm of a vintage green-upholstered sofa that wasn’t actually there. My brain had gone over the VR cliff.

Billion-dollar niche

VR is not about shoot-’em-up games, pretending to be a Formula 1 driver or the creation of more full-on porn – or at least it’s not just about these things. The VR market, described by forecasters at Deloitte as “a billion-dollar niche”, has the capacity to do amazingly progressive things for education, healthcare, science, culture and the media that make it to the virtual table.

The New York Times is the latest media company to do so. On Friday, the Grey Lady acquired Fake Love, “a leading creative experience design agency, delivering emotional and multi-sensory connection between consumers and brands”. Yes, it’s a marketing agency specialising in virtual reality and its cousins augmented reality and mixed reality. (Pokémon Go, by overlaying virtual objects on the real world, is a form of basic augmented reality.)

The New York Times is using VR technology to develop its journalism, but it also wants to make money out of branded VR content, and it has a real-world plan to do so, indicating it will take Fake Love’s expertise and marry it to the work of its native advertising unit, T Brand Studio.

Examples of virtual-reality journalism are starting to rack up, even as the industry wrestles with mobile. The Guardian’s first VR project, in April, was an editorial experiment that stayed very much on brand - its film 6x9 presented a virtual experience of solitary confinement to highlight the psychological trauma of this form of incarceration.

Infinite creative possibilities

The creative possibilities are infinite. I’m not averse to running around apocalyptic cityscapes or sticking flags on to remote planets, but in the imminent era of mass-market VR headsets and long-form VR content, I’m even more keen to see what might happen to quieter cultural forms such as the humble period drama.

I’ll put in a pre-order now, thanks, for a 1920s jazz age epic where I feel like I’m on the dance floor next to the shimmying actors, or how about an interactive soap set in a strait-laced 1950s where the audience has to go looking for the drama behind semi-closed doors. All of a sudden there’s a new way to visit the past.

Netflix’s sci-fi horror hit Stranger Things looked to the 1980s for its inspiration, but someone was also keeping one eye on the future. The “Upside Down”, its super-eerie parallel dimension, is rife for the full immersive VR experience and indeed already features in a 360-degree video (a kind of gateway drug to proper VR).

The lonely hedgehog birthday party I dropped in on at Facebook HQ was Henry, which when it was released last summer was only the second animated short film produced by the VR film-makers at Oculus Story Studio. So we are still closer to the beginning of this insane blur of a journey than we are to its end.

It is headset manufacturers such as Facebook, which acquired Oculus Rift in 2014, that will control the platforms of virtual reality, just as the owners of printing presses controlled newspapers. But there’s a second tier of influence to be carved up here. Which media organisations can make early hay from VR storytelling, and how? The answers could be mind-blowing.

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