The future of VR – what’s holding it back?

There’s an interesting piece on the future of VR by Sanjit Dang in TechCrunch, “What’s holding back VR?” Dang is an investment director at Intel Capital and the article is worth reading – both for what he gets right and what he misses in looking at the future of VR.

We’re clearly not where we expected to be with virtual reality in 2017, but it’s hardly a failure. It’s somewhere in between.

When it comes to virtual reality, we’re in a classic tech-industry moment: lots of chatter but seemingly little movement. We hear future-focused cheerleading from all corners about VR’s incredible potential, yet the 6.3 million headsets shipped last year is hardly cause for a ticker-tape parade.

So what’s holding back VR?

Sanjit Dang argues

I see three barriers to be solved in a specific order to keep VR moving forward. One is relatively easy. The other two will take a bit of time — but there is emerging evidence we’re getting there.

From our perspective, he gets two out of the three barriers right – not a bad average for predicting the future. Though we’re not sure why they need to be solved “. . . in a specific order.” They just need to be solved.

Barriers blocking the future of VR

Sanjit Dang’s three barriers are the following:

  • Step one: Get that phone off your forehead
  • Step two: Create more VR gaming studios
  • Step three: All roads lead to Hollywood

Mobile VR

Let’s start with the first. As many of you know, we’re fans of mobile VR. Tethered VR headsets are not the future. And Sanjit Dang is right – neither are mobile phones. The smartphone in a headset is the quickest way to virtual reality.

Samsung knows this well. The Gear VR headset is the best-selling HMD, outside of Google Cardboard which is something of a giveaway. But it’s the entry point, not the ultimate solution. As Dang notes,

It’s understandable the industry would try to stretch the capabilities of iOS and Android phones into the realm of VR. The problem is, these devices weren’t designed to be stuck to your head. There’s not enough battery life. The weight distribution is off. In an industry obsessed with the right customer experience, this one is all wrong.

He’s especially right about the weight distribution. Seriously, you shouldn’t be carrying a battery on the front of your face.

But this barrier will fall quickly. The low-cost Oculus Go HMD is on its way and Facebook’s Santa Cruz headset will be out late next year. Google is also creating a self-contained HMD that will be somewhere between Daydream View and the high-end Rift or Vive.

Oculus Go VR Headset and the Future of VR
Facebook’s affordable standalone headset – Oculus Go – will ship in early 2018 at $200.

That barrier is gone by fall 2018.

VR Gaming Studios

We’re not sure why Sanjit Dang wants to focus on gaming. VR content of any sort has been the issue here. And 2017 hasn’t brought the best news with the closing of Oculus Story Studio.

Yes, Facebook is still funding projects, The New York Times is churning out VR content (even daily), and VR content studios like Within continue to do incredibly innovative work.

But the funding model isn’t fully there. And while gaming studios can shoulder part of the load, we need educational, documentary, and other entertainment content in the mix.

For us, this is the major barrier.

Far more so than the technology which is progressing just fine. As Dave Cowling noted in our interview last month, we’ve yet to uncover the potential of the hardware we already have.

Future of VR and Gaming
This may be the future of gaming but it won’t be enough for the future of VR

All Roads Lead to Hollywood

Hollywood is everyone’s target these days (and sadly, rightfully so), but here we disagree with Sanjit Dang who says,

For VR to go mainstream, all roads lead to Hollywood. That means convincing executives who micromanage their risks that purpose-built headsets are available and that people love them. It’s why we have to solve the hardware problem first and then get the gamers on board to prove the vitality of the market. Only then will Hollywood feel safe to swim in the VR waters.

If only it was so simple. Some new VR headsets, pile on the gamers, and Hollywood would dive into VR.

Hollywood and the future of VR

But the money is already flowing in. The Virtual Reality Firm, UNLTD, took $1.1 Million in Seed Funding. Within has raised $56.6 million. IMAX created a $50 million Virtual Reality fund this summer to finance high-quality projects. I’m only skimming the list.

If not money, then what?

The reality is that VR requires an entirely new form of storytelling. The current model in Hollywood is designed for the fixed frame on the wall with the viewers’ gaze under the control of the director and cinematographer.

If some directors are holding back, others are already experimenting. Look at the amazing VR experience from the Mexican film director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The issue is not about HMD’s and the gaming community, but how we convey a narrative when you become the character in the experience. How do you tell a story to people who will be part of the story?

The future of VR

Like Sanjit Dang, we’re concerned about the future of VR. And we agree that the rapid developments in technology and new content will shift the landscape. But you cannot blame the film industry or see the gaming community as the savior of virtual reality.

In the long run, it is every one of us – as artists, filmmakers, educators – who have to shift our own perspective to embrace a new medium. The technology and money will only get you so far – it’s the vision that will take you there.