Lessons from CES: How VR Can Avoid the Fate of 3D TV

Photo: Stephen Cass/IEEE Spectrum
CES attendees line up for a chance to try the latest version of the Oculus Rift VR headset, which should finally start shipping to consumers by April.

“Your quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all.” So says Galadrial to the fellowship sent to destroy the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. But that advice might as well be directed to the burgeoning virtual reality industry. Early optimism that the second coming of VR, after a false start in the 1990s, will blossom into a new mainstream medium could collapse into despair, with the technology joining 3D television as another misfire.

“Hollywood got a black eye from 3D,” said Eric Shamlin, of the Secret Location production company, yesterday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In the end, despite a lot of effort from TV makers and even some networks,  he said, there just wasn’t enough compelling 3D content to overcome the limitations of the technology.

Contrast this with, say, the introduction of home VCRs, in which users were willing to put up with quite a bit of hassle in the early days—such as the relatively low quality of video over film or the need to swap in multiple tapes for long movies (especially for Betamax tapes)—in exchange for something totally new, i.e. the ability to watch a desired TV show or movie whenever they wanted, as many times as they wanted. Fiddling with the tracking ad naseum, or trudging to the video rental store in the rain, were things people were willing to do as the price for great content.

So the lesson (re)learned in Hollywood from the 3D debacle “was that there needs to be content,” continued Shamlin. But the industry faces some significant hurdles:

  1. The technology is still in what I think of as the “Cambrian Explosion” phase. As can be seen from just a few minute walking around the VR and AR zones on the CES showfloor, this means that there are a lot of different technical approaches in play from many different vendors, extending right down to the consumer level. The same raw piece of VR cinematic content could be captured, edited, processed, placed on a delivery platform, and downloaded and viewed by a consumer with nary a piece of software or hardware in common (apart from our old friend, the Internet).  This makes every production something of an experiment and things like quality control difficult—are you trying to create something that will make an Oculus Rift flex its muscles, or still comes across well with Google Cardboard?
  2. Following on from this point, finding VR content “is a real problem,” said Rebecca Howard, the New York Times’ former video general manager at the same CES panel as Shamlin. “It’s scattered in different platforms.” Even within these siloed platforms, it’s often difficult to search for the content a given viewer will find most appealing.
  3. Storytelling techniques are similarly siloed within different production and media companies. To work well, VR production requires different skills than traditional movie, TV, and game creation. People are now learning the rules and grammar of creating new medium (for example, if you want to go from a static shot to say, the view from a moving car, it’s best to do a jump cut rather than letting the viewer see the camera accelerate, as doing so turns out to be a great way to induce simulator sickness) but there’s not a lot of easy-accessible knowledge sharing going on, outside of the excellent efforts of places like the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. If the industry can’t learn and improve quickly as a whole, the overall quality of VR storytelling will be slow to improve, regardless of what technical achievements are made.
  4. VR faces an even greater education problem when it comes to the mainstream than 3D TV did. When 3D TV rolled around people were already used to the basic concept from years of okay-to-good 3D in cinemas. But—just the like the Matrix—no one can be told what VR is; you have to see it for yourself (clearly, I’m on a role with the geek references tonight). Which, in practice, currently means going to some sort of demo and trusting the brightly smiling acolyte handing you a headset that everything is going to be okay.

Some of these problems will shake out naturally—solid technologies will emerge from today’s stiff competition and mature in the next few years, reducing the confusion and DIY factor common to today’s VR production. Already we’re seeing the viewer market segment evolve nicely into well-defined entry, mid-range, and premium levels (currently represented by Google Cardboard, Samsung’s Gear VR, and the Oculus Rift, respectively), which will make it easier for creators to judge how their content will be viewed. Standardized editing and processing tools should hopefully follow suit, which should also reduce the silo factor.

Others problems—like figuring out how to tell stories that are native to VR in the way that This American Life is native to audio and Battlestar Galactica was native to TV—are harder to address. The industry is going to have to make a better fist of seeing past the immediate commercial interests of individual production and media companies and sharing hard-won skills and insight.

But VR has one giant ace up its sleeve that 3D TV didn’t. It really does offer something brand new that is compelling. Call it transport or call it presence, but even with the cheapest viewer today, VR can make you feel like you’re part of the content in a way that the biggest and most lavish IMAX documentary can’t. If VR technology companies and content producers can consistently deliver that core experience to viewers, those viewers will most likely be willing to forgive a few teething troubles and other stumbles along the way. Otherwise, VR could join 3D in being sent to the cornfield.

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