Virtual Reality Pioneers Are Writing the Rules As They Go
The New York Times, Google, and GE talk trailblazing in a new medium
The evolution of content consumption: someone steals Google Cardboard from a stoop but leaves a perfectly intact The New York Times Sunday paper behind. Paper beats rock but Cardboard beats paper.
The above anecdote came from principal filmmaker for VR at Google Jessica Brillhart during Social Media Week’s panel, “Leveraging Creativity, Technology, Culture: Reality through VR-tinted goggles.” Joined by Director of Global Content and Programming at GE Katrina Craigwell, Associate Editor at The New York Times Sam Dolnick, Co-founder of Giant Spoon Trevor Guthrie, Executive Producer of New York Times’ T Brand Studio Sydney Levin and moderated by CRO of New York Times Meredith Kopit Levien, the panel made one thing about the future of virtual reality clear:
That the future of virtual reality is totally unclear.
These pioneers in virtual reality are trailblazers in the truest sense. Even though you can drop $3,000 on a VR headset right now, virtual reality is still very much in its experimental stage. The potential is obvious, based on what we do know: The Times sent out more than 1 million Cardboard viewers to its subscribers. Filmmaker Chris Milk has dubbed virtual reality “the last medium.” A photo of overlord Mark Zuckerberg waltzing down an aisle flanked in VR-claden men drove the Internet mad. It’s VR’s “it” moment, where it secures its foothold in the world as a must-have product, that remains to be clearly seen.
These industry leaders recognize the above enthusiasm for VR and are riding the wave. Rather than try to forecast what that means for the future of VR, they mused on how to keep the momentum going so it doesn’t burn out in a beautiful flame.
Content is Key
“If you have no content, it’s just cardboard,” Brillhart said. The panel emphasized the importance of a user’s first experience in VR and that the platform is inundated with bad content, a lot of which are gimmicks. A bad first experience can have users writing off the medium and tossing their Cardboard into the recycle bin. The future of VR hinges heavily on kickass content.
Socializing In a Face Prison
“Communal viewing” was a word tossed around a lot during the panel, an unusual choice for a medium that is inherently antisocial. This doesn’t mean a group of people in headsets sitting in a room together, but rather creating a virtual world they can all experience together rather than a linear path like passing the device around a table. At MWC this year, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook created a “social VR” team to explore how people can “connect and share” in the medium, evidence that major players see the space as something that doesn’t have to be an isolating experience.
Embrace the Machines
New York Times’ Dolnick called virtual reality “delightful” and “magical,” a “revelatory” experience. “We wanted to show the wonder of this new medium,” he said. Sure, you’ll find technopanic come the introduction of any new infiltrating technology, but this panel remained largely optimistic about the platform.
GE’s Craigwell added, “We live in a world of machines, but how do we keep open the doors to the humanity of it?”
Make Up the Rule Book as You Go
“We are approaching each film as the first film,” Dolnick said about the New York Times’ technique in creating its VR content. Brillhart said that other filmmakers warned her that editing in 360-degree video was an impossible feat—and she did it anyway. But perhaps the most resonating comparison was Giant Spoon’s Guthrie contrasting VR with cinema: cinema has spent decades making rules and the greatest filmmakers break them. VR hasn’t had the luxury of time to hammer out a set of guidelines yet—everyone in the space now is laying the groundwork for a new and experimental endeavor. They are making up the rules as they go.
VR has yet to find its killer application, its defining moment that separates it from a fad or gimmick. Is it someone sitting alone on the couch with a headset strapped on? Is it a shared universe like an immersive chatroom? Is it a live experience you tune into for a more immersive substitute to your television? WHAT IS IT? Who knows—but at least in the meantime it f***ing rocks when it happens to be good.