TechMunch: Will VR ever become a social experience?

This year’s VR World demonstrated that VR is an endlessly innovative sector, continuously reinventing itself. The same can be said for the general conversation surrounding VR.

Exciting new developments are permeating at every level: from content to hardware through to application and platform. It’s hard to keep up with it all, let alone to take it all in when you’re faced with a packed exhibition hall.

Since last year there has been a fundamental shift in interest from VR technology itself to production of content. This was clear during Matt Beveridge of Pebble Studios’ keynote: “it’s no longer about what the technology can do, it’s about what we can do with the technology”.

Yet VR continues to fall short of the mark when it comes to attracting users, and it is certainly a long way off competing with other more established mediums. Why?

Most point to VR’s fatal flaw – in a world increasingly driven by social interaction; it remains anti-social. Throughout the event, discussion returned time and time again to whether the industry can overcome this challenge and become a platform that, like TV and film, can perpetuate itself through social interaction.

The short answer is no and the long answer is yes. VR is insular by nature, it involves placing goggles over your eyes, headphones in your ears and shutting out the real world around you. This is what defines the medium today and as production companies continue to develop their VR output, they are increasingly experiencing the difficulties that come with it. Even promoting VR content is difficult. Oliver Kibblewhite of Rewind, a VR production company, went as far as to say that “VR is impossible to sell to people who haven’t used it”. The usual promotion channels of social media and playing trailers in cinemas simply can’t convey the content properly and aren’t effective.

Live Nation, an American events company, uses a model that has completely bypassed the problem. In partnership with NextVR, they have been pioneering high quality live VR broadcasts of concerts from the likes of Lil Wayne to Major Lazer. In stark contrast to other VR content providers, the venture has been overwhelmed with online engagement. The buzz and urgency that surrounds a live event has translated into what Gabe Sassoon, SVP of Global Operations speaking at VR World, called a “social phenomenon” – results other content providers can only dream of.

While this remains a niche concept, and certainly can’t serve as an industry-wide model, it demonstrates that users will share VR content and that it can drive engagement.

Observers are also keenly watching volumetric VR, a new way of filming that allows for the viewer to actually move inside the video they are watching. You can walk closer to objects you find interesting, walk around a character or even wander over to the edge of a cliff and look down.

The technology is incredibly exciting and is already drawing a lot of interest. Not only does it intensify the viewer’s level of immersion or ‘presence’, you could even bring your friends into the video you’re watching by placing a virtual version of them alongside you.

It’s not hard to imagine a group of friends watching a film together at the same time, with virtual versions of themselves being able to chat or point out hidden easter eggs. It’s no wonder Facebook has revealed designs for its own depth-perceptive volumetric camera as this could completely redefine VR as a thoroughly social experience.

But could this be the wrong end of the stick? Is the way we define ‘social’ outdated or exclusively the tenet of other mediums? Why should we expect to share a VR experience in the same way we share 2D films when they are in fact wholly different?

Avril Furness is an independent filmmaker who recently produced her first VR film, “The Last Moments”. The interactive docudrama allows the viewer to experience an assisted suicide, choosing to either end their life or carry on living, all within a replica room at Dignitas in Switzerland. On the subject of making VR social, Avril’s answer is simple – it already is.

2,500 people attended VR World, all of us ready to talk about the technology, to speculate, to marvel at the possibilities but, most importantly, to share our recent experiences. Not only does VR bring people together but it creates conversations, it lends itself to word of mouth.

In many ways more so than traditional mediums. This may not be akin to the millions of shares and restless engagement on social media that we’ve come to expect with video content but it remains intensely social: “It’s just different”.

Social may be today’s VR buzzword but perhaps it needn’t be tomorrow’s. Yes, the fact that VR doesn’t translate well on social media is slowing the technology’s dissemination and sometimes capping content’s level of popularity but maybe we shouldn’t be applying current metrics to something so new.

It’s now up to the industry to break from the mould of previous mediums and focus on what it can already do – create content worth talking about.

Benjy Hollis, Account Executive, Technology