Taking Control with Oculus Rift
When I was little, I dreamed of growing up to be Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Once I grudgingly realised that was an unlikely career path, I still wanted to experience her world; scale walls, solve ancient puzzles, at least kick some bad-guy behind. With virtual reality undergoing a massive reinvention, this could be the decade I achieve my dream. It may reimagine how we experience all visual content…or will it?
Virtual reality is a term that has been around for a while but it has so far offered “little more than novel functionality for consumer-facing markets,” (Techradar). Just like with any new technology, it doesn't take long until some clever people have some interesting thoughts and produce completely new applications. Over the past few months, we have had several clients mention the words ‘Oculus Rift’ as a potential new medium for their events and videos. Just like 3D, it has its applications and it is not always right for what you are trying to say.
Firstly, what is Oculus Rift? It is marketed as a virtual reality headset for gaming. Without getting too technical, it is a screen overlaid with special lenses that creates a stereoscopic 3D image. Combined with embedded sensors that track and adapt the image to the wearer’s head movements, it transports you into a 3D world and allows you to look around in it. Since immersion is the new trademark for any user experience, it has quickly broken out of its initial pigeonhole and is now being repurposed in cinema, journalism, documentary features, experiential events, and social media. But it is still relatively unavailable for the average person. With a consumer content development kit rumoured for release this year, that may not be the case for long. So what is the potential for this new(ish) technology in the communications industry?
Currently the problem is that a lot of people are hearing the big names being thrown around – Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, HoloLens, Google Cardboard, SteamVR – without realising the practicalities of using them. I will not go into the specs and advantages of each (you can pursue those truths here), but they each present a new method of communication and one that people are fascinated by. Just like me with my dream of being Lara, people are excited by the idea of being a part of these virtual worlds, of being the characters rather than a controller, and companies are keen to show themselves as thought leaders in embracing these new technologies.
There is nothing wrong with that, but what people need to realise is that even though these technologies may be readily available very soon, it is the content that matters. At the moment, as an event organiser, for example, you would be hard pressed to find off-the-shelf content that is ideal for your theme. It simply doesn’t exist. If you are going to pursue VR technology as an audience engagement tool, it needs to be the central attraction rather than a side-note. Why? Cost. The technology is not extortionate – you could get an Oculus headset and dev kit for under a £1,000 – but the content creation for it will be.
To put it in perspective – and not even the most ambitious version at that – you need to think of the virtual world as at least a half-sphere (though Oculus, for example, only extends to a 110 degree field of view). Then you have to fill it with 3-dimensional visuals. Whether footage or animation, it needs to be created in 3D and that does not come cheap or quick. Plus – just for a moment (I promise!), I’ll pop you in the shoes of developers – it’s 3D with no peripheral vision. When you are watching 3D in a cinema or at home, your brain has a reference point to your physical location – it knows you are seated in a room, looking at a screen. With Oculus, and other VR technologies, you are supposed to be fully immersed, which means your eyes are experiencing one thing and your body is doing another and you have head movements and interaction with your virtual body. So, in order to not make your viewer motion sick (and I do mean potential projectile vomiting) developers have to think of a whole range of extremely scientific, often double-barrelled, terminology like ‘vestibulo-ocular reflex’ and ‘interpupillary distance’, when creating this world. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just think of it in terms of price – the more letters in the words, the more zeros your budget will need before delving into the VR realm. This is probably why most applications for these fancy gadgets will be in the high-budget world of games development.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean there is no scope for something like the Rift in events, for example. If you are willing to spend the money and are well organised enough to start planning months ahead, you can have a magnificent spectacle for your audience; you can send them to space, or shrink them to the size of a dust particle living in the Amazonian underbrush. The possibilities really are endless, which is why, even after the dip to the negatives above, I am still very excited for this technology to hit its mainstream stride.
It’s not even close to that yet and people are already doing great things with the basic principles. For example, the legendary David Attenborough has teamed up with the specialist Alchemy VR, Atlantic Productions and their VFX studio Zoo, to tell the story of Earth’s earliest life in a new virtual reality documentary series. Like Alchemy’s creative director, Phil Harper, eloquently puts it:
"Sure you could go and jump out of a plane. But how about going on a dive 400 million years ago? That kind of stuff just isn't possible at all, but Virtual Reality makes it possible for us to give people those experiences, which is very exciting.“
I second that. It is these types of applications that I am really looking forward to and, perhaps, helping to create one day. Another very interesting application I have read about is VR’s potential to inspire empathy. As the very insightful Dan Kaplan puts it:
“The purest form of empathy is the feeling of being in someone else’s shoes, experiencing their emotions as if they were your own.”
As the perfect example of this, Nonny de la Peña has created a whole new profession with immersive journalism, where she uses VR technology to tell harrowing stories that completely circumvent compassion fatigue.
That is what I see VR as being all about. I don’t even go to see 3D films any more as it has never expanded out of the box of ‘gimmick’ for me, but full immersion – that is the stuff of the future. Putting the event organiser’s hat back on for a moment, the real reason virtual reality may not be the best medium is this characteristic – engagement is the end goal of any event, but with VR headsets like Oculus Rift, it is individual rather than communal. I’m sure that type of expansion won’t be far off once VR technology becomes more accessible and advanced but, for the time being, it has a time and a place. If you’d like to see whether there is scope for this technology in your communications, we’d be more than happy to figure it out with you or guide you in the right direction.
As a parting gift, I’ll leave you with a mind-expanding outlook (slash weekend movie suggestion); 100 years from now, where will our relentless quests for immersive experiences lead us? To a world where atmosphere comes in ampules and we can choose to live in an animated world of our own choosing, like Ari Folman’s extremely topic and, depending on who you ask, either wondrous or terrifying depiction in The Congress? Is VR a step in that direction? I wonder…