Virtual Reality: The last medium?

Virtual Reality, as a concept, has been around for over 50 years. In the beginning, it was literally the stuff of science fiction. Then in the early 90s, it actually became reality, when physical prototypes were developed, using the modern technology of the era. The results were underwhelming - imagine pixilated graphics and heavy, nausea inducing headsets. The concept lay dormant for 20 years before anyone thought to revisit its feasibility.

That person was Palmer Luckey, the young inventor and founder of Oculus VR. What he discovered is that, without anyone realising it, technology had quietly caught up with the requirements of virtual reality. There were now low-latency head orientation sensors and small, high-refresh rate OLED displays which didn’t exist just five years ago. Using these off the shelf parts, he constructed a rudimentary hardware proof-of-concept which delivered an immersive experience far beyond what had been seen before.

From this initial prototype, Oculus was founded, bringing on board many high profile experts in the field of computer graphics, alongside millions of dollars in funding. Their inaugural consumer VR product is about to be released to the public, and many smart people consider this to be a watershed moment. Will this be the event that introduces practical VR to the masses?

Oculus (now owned by Facebook) is leading the way, but Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Sony are all working on their own implementations of VR. There’s a full-on VR technology arms race happening, with the usual suspects involved. They recognise the huge potential of the medium, and the unique ways it can complement their existing product offerings.

Virtual Reality 2.0

This new generation of VR technology is in its infancy, and as with any nascent platform, pundits try to predict the types of experiences it will enable. Stereotypically, new mediums are often projected (interpreted) through the lens of the incumbent platforms which precede it. The first automobile was considered a 'horseless carriage'. The first motion picture content was essentially just televised theatre. Simply reimagining the experience of an old medium through a new one may be the path of least of resistance, but it ignores the unique elements of the new. So the theory goes, in order to fulfill its true potential, a new medium needs to abandon previous biases and embrace the characteristics and constraints which are unique to it.

But does this calculus apply to VR? Perhaps not. Unlike all previous mediums, it is has no baked-in constraints. It is not simply a proxy for storytelling or communication. Its ambition is to replicate the reality we natively experience. It is, by design, the last medium.

The obvious question becomes: what are the scenarios for which diving into an alternate reality becomes preferable to the 'real' reality someone is experiencing? Understanding the motivations that drive these virtual experiences can uncover the opportunities and jobs to be done of the medium.

Applications of virtual reality

In the context of VR, the virtual reality is simply 'content'. As with all previous mediums, the success of this one will be intrinsically tied to the abundance and quality of content created for it. In this respect, authors and the tools they use will be just as important as the technology that audiences use to consume.

These creation tools are also nascent, and consist of both hardware and software solutions. Let’s explore a potential use-case for this technology within the realm of current domains.

E-commerce and virtual stores

A common current trend in the e-commerce space is the realisation that an online presence alone is not enough to deliver the ideal consumer experience. Even Amazon, the largest pure-play online commerce company, has recently opened a 'bricks and mortar' physical presence near its headquarters in Seattle.

What is the impetus for taking this step 'backwards' into the 20th Century? Well, these companies have discovered that even with a limitless online catalogue, the experience of browsing their catalogues online doesn’t compare to the act of literally walking down the aisles of a physical store.

But providing a physical presence requires sacrificing one of the key advantages of online commerce: having an effectively infinite reach, with the ability to target any consumer, wherever they are, independent of their physical location. Reaching global penetration at this physical scale is beyond the reach of all but the largest retailers.

Imagine consumers using VR to browse a virtual physical store, representing the catalogue. Even brands that have an existing physical retail footprint would benefit from the ability to amplify this bricks-and-mortar experience across markets they don’t have the scale or reach to address.

Sizing has been an eternal struggle for online clothing retailers and consumers alike. How to know if the shirt you’re purchasing online will actually fit properly when it arrives? Sizing charts are not standardised, and even if they were, there is no single reference body type to target a perfect fit.

So how do you try before you buy? A virtual fitting room could come very close to replicating the experience of trying on clothes in a real physical fitting room. Imagine associating detailed physical dimensions of your body with your online shopping persona. Using this information, alongside similarly detailed sizing information for the individual clothing items could let you try on pieces of clothing in a virtual mirror. As you raise your arms or tilt your hips, you could see the fabric as it contours and hangs off your virtual body.

Future opportunities

This is just one creative application of VR hardware and virtual environments. The potential is almost limitless, and there isn’t a field or industry that won’t be touched in some way by this technology. While the incumbent hardware/software companies have all planted their stakes in the ground, there will be massive opportunities for all players in the ecosystem, especially content creators who understand how to create experiences on this new canvas.

Marc Lamothe, Technical Director at Start