18.01.17

why the VR and AR frontier is the new wild west.

Lucrative, lawless and often wildly misunderstood..

I’ve said ‘this is the year of VR’ every year for the past three, and I mean it more with each passing one. We got Google Cardboard (with about 40 million or so manufactured by most estimates), then Samsung’s Gear VR (with 5 million sold and over a million being used) which brought a taste to the masses.

Then, of course, we got the long-awaited Oculus Rift - which is single-handedly responsible for making VR a thing again - and the surprisingly good, unprecedented HTC Vive. Then came the PSVR, which made VR a thing you could buy in Argos for the kids. Truly, it’s never been so easy to slip on a headset and go sail the stars or climb a virtual mountain.

Then, of course, Pokemon Go came and, pretty rapidly, went. AR didn’t do much beyond make some kids (and immature adults, myself very much included) go round looking for electric weasels and karate-monkeys in parks. But then Google’s Project Tango (now available in the Lenovo Phab Pro 2 and upcoming Asus Zenfone AR) gave the ailing technology a booster shot and five years’ development in one fell swoop.

Google_ATAP's_Project_Tango_tablet_(15387052663).jpg

AR can now do truly amazing things. VR is a little ahead of the curve. But so what? What use is this technology without a killer app? And, of course, once there is, marketers and brands will flock to it.

But the truth is, even as someone who absolutely adores these technologies (to the annoyance of my colleagues and the decimation of my bank balance), I have to admit that they’re not really delivering on useful experiences and things brands can put their weight behind.

To return to my earlier analogy (which I assure you isn’t based on the Westworld phenomenon – I’m only on episode four and I don’t think it’s that great yet…) there’s money to be made, and people are packing up their metaphorical shovel and going west because there’s gold in them thar hills.

But the only people really finding those rich seams of amazing, game-changing content aren’t the big brands, nor the experiential powerhouses in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. They haven’t found the magic formula yet. They’re too big to turn quickly, too slow to really surf this nascent wave. And, most importantly, they have too much to lose by getting it wrong.

The people getting it right are the passion-players, the small one-man outfits in a shed, the tinkerers, the tweakers, the home-grown programmers and the people who have half an idea and one hell of a vision. The ones who have nothing to lose by doing something that doesn’t work. The people who have always changed the world, whether it’s with the steam engine, the internet or the lightbulb.

Because they have the freedom to fully immerse themselves in this new technology that, frankly, nobody understands and nobody knows the limits of yet.

As of right now, arguably the most powerful and emotionally-charged experience is Apollo 11 VR. Built out of a small studio just outside Cork, in Ireland, it’s an educational journey. People can strap in and spend 45 minutes having an abridged education that starts with JFK’s ‘we will send a man to the Moon’ speech, blast off on Apollo 11, take control of the modules in orbit, land on the Sea of Tranquillity and return safely home. All with the real radio and speech audio from the real thing.

apollo.jpgCaption: The entire Apollo 11 mission has been virtually recreated. Now, which button opens the airlock, and which is the lights? Better toss a coin…

Does it work? Well it got the seal of approval of Charlie Duke. He was the voice of Houston’s CAPCOM during the Moon Landing, and himself the youngest man to walk on the Moon during the Apollo 16 mission. He says it’s amazing. He’s allowed to.

It works because it’s something only a dozen people in the entire world could ever have experienced and it’s probably the pinnacle of all human achievement, all beautifully wrapped up by some people who clearly have nothing but love for the process. I’d encourage you to watch a video but as with all VR, only experiencing it will do it justice. As Carl Sagan wrote in his legendary sci-fi novel about space travel ‘Contact’ – they should have sent a poet, not a scientist.

Other similarly effective, but commercially unviable experiences, include Everest VR, which puts you at the literal top of the world, The Climb, a simple yet terrifying mountaineering game and Google’s seminal Tilt Brush painting and sculpting… thing. It’s like… well imagine an acid trip crossed with Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting and mixed in with Tron and Star Trek’s Holodeck and you’re about halfway towards this amazing experience.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous there’s ‘Accounting’, an accounting simulator from the people behind the bonkers Rick and Morty cartoon that is literally insane and about the best way to spend 15 minutes within a VR headset.

In terms of actual amazing experiences, there’s some flight simulators and, weirdly, a HUGE following of Euro Truck Simulator 2 which is oddly therapeutic, where you have to safely deliver a container of seasonal fruits to Strasbourg and can look around and enjoy the scenery. No I don’t know why it works, but apparently it does.

similators.jpgCaption: Yes, really, people do this. For fun. At a cost of £1000s of pounds. No, we don’t know why either.

There’s also the outstanding Elite: Dangerous, which is a space exploration and fighting game built from the ground up for VR. Give someone 400,000,000 solar systems to enjoy and a spaceship you can walk around and people will give you lots of money. And all this came from a small studio in Cambridgeshire.

elite.jpgCaption: You may not look cool flying a spaceship in virtual reality, but damn it if you don’t feel cool!

I can only think of two truly good experiences that come from big brands. The first was a VR experience to promote the launch of the film The Walk, about Philippe Petit’s legendary tightrope crossing between the World Trade Centres (vertigo aplenty, but good god does it give you a taste of what he did) and Lucasarts’ Trials on Tatooine.

tatooine.jpgCaption: The Walk VR: one of the better PR stunt slash VR stunts. Sufferers of vertigo need-not apply…

Star Wars and VR seem like a match made in geeky nerd territory, and it is, but this short freebie is five minutes long at most and seems nothing more than a technical test. You get to interact by pressing some buttons on the Millennium Falcon, then you get a light sabre and fight some Stormtroopers then it’s all over. It has a bad Han Solo voice actor and it doesn’t leave you fulfilled, merely wanting much, much more. But as a trailer or teaser, it delivered.

In fact, there is one VR brand experience that should have been the biggest and best of all: a virtual version of Ridley Scott’s much-loved film The Martian. With input from the legendary director himself, and Matt Damon, it’s an interactive experience taking in elements from the film, interspersed with footage and clips. Sounds perfect.

arm.jpgCaption: Mark Watney giving potential purchasers of the VR experience advice?

Unfortunately, it took this potential and didn’t deliver. The reviews said it all: too expensive (more expensive than buying the book, the DVD and going to see the film), too short, barely interactive. It should have been a free trailer for the blu-ray launch, rather than an expensive, abridged movie. It’s a dangerous move, it clearly cost a lot of money to develop and launch, and is impressive technically, but it’s only damaged the brand.

not reco.pngCaption: One of the kinder reviews

That’s it. Two great brand experiences in all of 2016.

All this heaped praise aside, there’s about a hundred times more experiences that are really, really bad. It’s a lawless market. People can make rip-offs, copycat experiences or just plain bad games. It’s so easy to make people feel travel-sick, nauseous or ill with VR. Get the movement wrong just a little and your experience is unplayable.

Then there’s things rushed out to ride the wave and get the money that just don’t work. I think there are maybe 25 truly playable, worthwhile experiences. And there are about 2,500 on sale. Probably more.

So there are precious few things worth playing, yet consumers are hungry for more experiences and willing to pay serious money to play with their new toys. This is a dangerous mix.

Until there are more killer apps out there, brands won’t risk their reputation by using the technology. So the industry remains immature. And until it matures, mass market adoption can’t happen. Vicious cycle, that.

This applies to VR and AR, but again VR is a few years ahead of AR. That’s going to take Project Tango going mainstream before there’s any kind of market to make developing apps cost-effective. It’s currently in two niche Android phones from two of the smaller manufacturers. It needs Samsung or, in a really unlikely move, Apple, to get behind it.

This is why my advice for 2017 is to look for the indie bands, not the big record label releases, for inspiration. People with passion will keep making amazing experiences, but they won’t have million-dollar marketing budgets. Not yet.

Keep panning for gold, there’s money in them thar hills. But it’s still hard to find a real nugget.

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ARTICLE BY KHAL HARRIS


Digital Strategist, tech fan and cheese afficionado

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