Virtual Reality Prepares To Take Off
In case, for some reason, you haven’t noticed, virtual reality is already all around us. Facebook’s doing it, Audi is doing it, BestBuy is doing it, the PGA Tour is doing it, The New York Times is doing it, and The United Nations is doing it. So is the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Any visitor to the annual event for cinema-lovers last weekend who was privileged to check out its first-ever “VR Day,” a showcase of made-for-virtual-reality shorts, would easily have concluded that there are no longer doubts about the possibility of VR becoming a mainstream form of entertainment.
The event was held at an “electronic arts and performance” venue, in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood called Gray Area. A number of circular tables were scattered throughout the room, each one surrounded by leather office chairs. The viewers (best described as futuristic hipsters) swiveled around in those office chairs, each sporting a clunky VR headset along with headphones. As they turned around in their chairs, they seemed to be looking up and down and to their sides, their bodies contorting to take in every possible angle of a scene only they could see, through the glasses strapped to their faces.
Due to the large number of intending viewers, you had to wait your turn—everyone needs a headset and headphones and a chair in order to get the experience, and that is much harder to scale than a 3D movie in a normal theater. Most of the short films on show were however worth the wait.
The best ones were those that seemed to toy with your senses—Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart made felt like one was standing right on the icy dwarf planet. Another standout experience, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, examined the cognitive and emotional experience of losing one’s vision. With the use of “binaural” audio along with beautiful animations, the immersive experience was possibly the most striking and vivid of the short movies featured at VR Day. For those few minutes that viewers were strapped in, and were completely enveloped and engrossed in the filmmaker’s world, they were no longer in San Francisco’s hipster mecca. They were transported to another reality—a completely virtual reality that somehow managed to feel totally real.
The Future of VR
The business models that will win out in the world of virtual reality is not yet clear. Which headsets and platforms will have the greatest market share? Will people be willing to pay money to come to mainstream VR events like they do to go to the theater? Will they opt, instead to buy a VR entertainment system for their home? So many questions remain unanswered.
A recent Fortune story regarding the future of VR projects that the market for the budding technology could be worth $150 billion in just four years. It, however, also points out that no one really knows which companies, technologies, and experiences will win out.
Even Mark Zuckerberg, whose dominating social network, Facebook, started shipping the Oculus Rift headset in March, says it is early days. Zuckerberg pointed out, during the company’s recent earnings call that: “We don’t expect VR to take off as a mainstream success right away. I really want to emphasize that. Most Rift early adopters are gamers and developers, but eventually we believe that VR is going to be the next big computing platform, and we’re making the investments necessary to lead the way there.”