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Virtual Realities

Five forecasts to orient your lighthouse by.

Earlier this year, at the 2016 T-EDGE VR Summit in Shenzhen, I delivered a keynote address on the future of the VR ecosystem, anchored by five forecasts. Though I don't claim to have a crystal ball, I believe that these five points will bear out over the next few years. So here's my $0.02...

Virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) will radically transform life and business, including all current forms of media and entertainment. The new ways in which VR, AR & MR allow us to experience and interact with content, data and environments will inspire rapid innovation and disrupt traditional media companies hoping to ease in through cautious adaptation. Most current hardware (TVs, computers, phones) will be obsolete in 5 to 10 years as AR & MR technologies redefine how we enjoy content, review data and communicate with others. What will it mean to the electronics industry when the only hardware you need is a pair of glasses? What will it mean to be IMAX when consumers can use VR to enjoy a "giant screen experience" -- complete with simulated audience -- if they want to enjoy communal consumption? (The fact that IMAX is taking baby steps into location-based VR may be tacit acknowledgement that IMAX theaters will soon go the way of Blockbuster stores.) As traditional business models die, new businesses will emerge, with mixed reality ruling the roost. We'll soon be able to "skin" our environments and even ourselves, opening up intriguing possibilities for home decorating and fashion design. Virtual pets will take on a whole new life in MR. Live entertainment will be transformed. The list goes on and on. As VR / MR wearables grow smaller and lighter and the demands grow greater, the related technology infrastructure will by necessity grow larger and more sophisticated. In business, you'll either surf this wave or be clobbered by it. In life, you'll either enjoy the brave new world or you'll wander through oddly barren physical structures full of gesticulating oddballs.

Despite a flurry of activity on the content front, the lion's share of VR action has been with hardware (especially in mainland China). This is understandable, since tools are required for creation and pipelines are required for distribution. But, ultimately, the wine is more precious than the bottles.  Most VR revenue forecasts have content returning far more lucre than hardware and software in the mid-to-long term, and many major entertainment companies hope to capitalize by shoehorning existing franchises from traditional media into immersive media -- "leveraging on the library" as it were. In some cases the adapted content benefits from the expanded possibilities, but in most cases it comes across rather lame, like an estranged uncle fast dancing at your wedding. Even creators who immerse themselves in VR with the best intentions, knowing that they don't know what they don't know, can find themselves imprisoned by their preconceptions. Google VR filmmaker Jessica Brillhart underscored this when she dispelled the notion that "you can't cut in VR:" it's not that you can't cut, it's that the editing paradigm needs to evolve. In fact, when it comes to immersive media, our entire storytelling paradigm needs to evolve. New narrative forms are emerging, and as the technology sublimates itself, we will progress towards a truly conceptual art form of "mind events." When that day comes to pass -- when you can directly stimulate the five senses at the cerebral level instead of through strapping electronics over orifices, when immersive media truly comes into its own, all bets are off.

Contrary to dystopian visions of a future in which humanity has atomized into billions of individuals isolated within virtual cocoons, VR has already proven itself to be a highly social medium. More people make it better, and more perspectives make it richer. Chris Milk, co-founder & CEO of Within (formerly Vrse), famously characterized VR as an "empathy machine" in which first-person viewing becomes "you-person" viewing through the phenomenon of virtual presence. Indeed, VR experiences such as CLOUDS OVER SIDRA, which Milk co-directed for the UN, offer compelling perspectives into the lives of others. Shared perspective fosters understanding, and increased understanding could ideally engender greater compassion as our digital experiences become less informational and more emotional. Given the current global rise in nationalism, more compassion is sorely needed. However, history is peppered with examples of emotional resonance being used for worse as well as for better. The palpable presence and emotional impact of VR may inspire donations to a worthy charity, but could also boost enrollment in a terrorist organization (VR is already being effectively applied to military recruiting).

Every virtual environment is potentially a total surveillance state and a marketer's paradise -- one that we voluntarily enter. Your location, activities and purchasing patterns are already being tracked (and in many cases, self-disclosed) online. VR supercharges "the mapping of you" via a virtual footprint compiled from your head, eye, body and hand gestures. Research conducted by Jeremy Bailenson, Professor of Communication at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has shown that this virtual footprint can be traced back to an online user profile. In other words, you can be identified through your characteristic gestures and eye movements. The question of who stores, owns and accesses this data, and to what end it is used (during your life and after your death), becomes extremely important -- so much so, that the USA's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is among those voicing concerns about the potential for exploitation in VR. Cyber-bullying and other forms of psychological abuse will be super-charged in VR, and there is an increased potential for deception. Documentary VR filmmakers proudly note the heightened disclosure of 360-degree video, but VR simulations by definition traffic in deception -- usually for entertainment purposes, but potentially for other purposes. "Redirected walking" is a technique which cheats a VR game player's sense of movement to allow them to wander through large-scale virtual environments while actually navigating a much smaller space. Innocent enough, and all in good fun, but emblematic of VR's potential for manipulation.

Much has been made of 2016 as "The Year of VR," but 2016 is merely D-Day, when the first wave of VR landing craft unload. Very little will go as planned as hardware companies, software companies, content creators and distribution platforms attempt to establish their beachheads. Some will lose their troops in rough seas. Others will land in the wrong place. Still others will make it to shore only to find themselves under fire as they struggle with incorrect assumptions and flawed plans. In short, there will be a lot of blood in the water. The next few years will be rife with hype, failure and disillusionment. FY17 Q1 will be an early gut check for many, full of pivots and parachutes. Nevertheless, a fortunate few will succeed, and a handful of players will dominate (success is self-reinforcing, after all). Some names you will recognize, but most you won't. The VR Era will begin in 2020, and will be ruled by the game-changers: those who use VR to provide you with something that you didn't know you need, but soon find that you can't live without.

Kevin Geiger's picture

Kevin is the author of AWN's Reality Bites blog, his musings on the art, technology and business of immersive media (AR, VR, MR) and AI. You can find Kevin's website at www.kevingeiger.com and he can be reached at holler@kevingeiger.com.

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